Zack Beauchamp · Tuesday, March 14, 2017, 2:05 pm
Europe is facing a growing debate over whether to restrict the rights of Muslims to preserve the continent’s secular values. A new court ruling could make that easier.
The verdict Tuesday from the European Court of Justice, the top authority on European Union law, said that a Belgian company was free to bar Muslim women from wearing headscarves at the office. That potentially opens the door to more restrictions on religious expression in the workplace, as employers have now been told that such rules can be consistent with EU law.
The corporate security firm at the center of the case, G4S, employed a Muslim receptionist, Samira Achbita. Achbita asked permission to wear a headscarf. G4S refused, and afterward issued a formal rule that barred all employees who dealt with clients from wearing visibly identifiable religious garb, including Jewish kippahs and Christian crosses.
The European court, in a ruling announced on Tuesday, came down mostly on G4S’s side. The reason, it explained in a press release on the case, is that the company’s rule didn’t single out headscarves, and so did not constitute anti-Muslim discrimination.
The problem is that G4S’s rule burdens some members of minority groups, such as Muslim women and Jewish men, far more than other people — Christians are not religiously obligated to display signs of faith.
The ECJ did acknowledge that this, in theory, could constitute a kind of “indirect” discrimination, and asked the Belgian court to investigate further to see if there was some kind of discriminatory intent in G4S’s specific rule.
But the European court ruled that rules that indirectly burden one group more than others can be acceptable provided the company had a good reason for it. In G4S’s case, that meant projecting an image of religious neutrality to its clients. If that’s why the company did it, the ECJ said, then it’s A-okay.