'EU headscarf ruling media storm is much ado about nothing'

Andrea Williams

Andrea Williams

Source: Christian Legal Centre/CoE Comms, CJEU

Andrea Williams, Chief Executive of the Christian Legal Centre, commented on the Court of Justice of the European Union's ruling on religious symbols today. She said:

"Much has been made, in the last 24 hours, of the Court of Justice of the European Union's ruling in the G4S Secure Solutions case. The case sought a preliminary ruling on the question of whether a blanket ban on the wearing of religious symbols by a private employer would amount to direct discrimination under the meaning of the Employment Directive.

The Church of England issued a statement expressing grave concern over the meaning of the ruling. See: http://cofecomms.tumblr.com/post/158400140872/response-to-ecj-ruling-on-headscarves

Maria Miller MP asked an Urgent Question in the House of Commons relating to what the ruling means for the wearing of religious symbols in the UK, and there has been considerable media interest. See: http://christianconcern.us2.list-manage.com/track/click?u=bed173cc9adfcad1e0e442a35&id=a577680548&e=51f2da5c21

To be fair, the case could have had massive implications. The Employment Directive has been transposed into the domestic anti-discrimination legislation of all 28 EU Member States, including the United Kingdom by the Equality Act 2010.

The Christian Legal Centre is as an organisation which supported three of the four applicants in the now famous Eweida ruling at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg which stated that British Airways could not prohibit the wearing of the cross as part of its uniform policy. We have been running cases involving the manifestation of faith for over a decade so we have a clear interest in yesterday's ruling in Luxembourg.

So let's look at what the ruling actually says and what that means for the existing right to wear religious symbols, including the cross, in the United Kingdom.

1. The case, originating in Belgium, asked for a preliminary ruling directed from the Belgium courts to ask the Court of Justice of the European Union if a blanket ban by a private employer on the wearing of religious symbols, applied equally to all religions, would breach the Employment Directive in relation to freedom of religion.

2. It is important to remember that the Court of Justice of the European Union (which is the Court of the European Union in Luxembourg) is different from the European Court of Human Rights (which serves the Council of Europe in Strasbourg). All 28 Member States of the European Union are subject to both Courts. As such, even if the Luxembourg court had ruled that blanket bans on religious symbols at work was categorically legal, this would not affect the application of the Eweida ruling in the United Kingdom.

3. Far from being in conflict with Eweida however, the ruling cites Eweida in its legal reasoning, stating that prohibitions on the wearing of religious symbols must balance the competing interests of the employer to its business reputation and the rights of its employees to express their religious belief through the wearing of clothing or symbols.

4. Importantly, the Court of Justice affirms two principles. The first, at the centre of the ruling, is that to limit an employee's freedom to wear a religious symbol, a policy must serve a legitimate aim, and the means to achieving that aim must be necessary in a democratic society and proportionately tailored to achieving that aim. This is exactly in line with the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights. The second principle, equally important, is that this assessment must happen at the national level. Precisely stated, the Court of Justice made no ruling on the legality of prohibiting the wearing of religious symbols at work, it simply clarified a point of law in relation to defining the Directive, and left it to the national courts to address the substantive questions involved.

5. The banning of headscarves, apart from other religious symbols, is not novel to European law. The European Court of Human Rights has upheld bans on the wearing of Islamic headscarves in cases involving Turkey, Switzerland and France for reasons as diverse as the incompatibility of sharia law with democratic principles to the protection of women from discrimination and their devaluation or oppression.

Yesterday's ruling in Luxembourg has not changed the law in the United Kingdom or anywhere else in the European Union. The Eweida ruling is still the law of the land and the Christian Legal Centre is here to defend anyone who is told by their employer that they are not permitted to wear their cross at work."