EU Advocate General Says Employers Can Ban Yarmulkes and Headscarves

European flags in front of the Berlaymont building, headquarters of the European commission in Brussels.
European flags in front of the Berlaymont building, headquarters of the European commission in Brussels.

Employers may enact general bans on religious clothing such as yarmulkes or headscarves at the workplace, according a non-binding ruling issued Wednesday by a top European Union legal adviser.

The case will now go to the EU’s Court of Justice for a final ruling.

The case arose after Samira Achbita, a Muslim employee of G4S, a Belgian security company, was fired from her company after she insisted on wearing a headscarf to work. G4S policy forbids employees from wearing visible religious, political or philosophical symbols.

Achbita sued G4S. After losing in the trial and appellate courts, her case went to the Belgian Court of Cassation, the highest court in that country, which, in turn, requested clarification of the EU laws against religious discrimination from the EU Court of Justice.

In the opinion issued Wednesday, Advocate General Juliane Kokott ruled that “there is no direct discrimination on the ground of religion where an employee of Muslim faith is banned from wearing an Islamic headscarf in the workplace, provided that the ban is founded on a general company rule prohibiting visible political, philosophical and religious symbols in the workplace and not on stereotypes or prejudices against one or more particular religions or against religious beliefs in general.” Kokott said that the ban may constitute “indirect discrimination based on religion, but may, however, be justified in order to enforce a legitimate policy of religious and ideological neutrality …”

Kokott said that the company rule did not discriminate specifically against Muslims or against women: “After all, a company rule such as that operated by G4S could just as easily affect a male employee of Jewish faith who comes to work wearing a kippah, or a Sikh who wishes to perform his duties in a Dastar (turban) …”

Kokott distinguished prohibitions on religious clothing from other forms of discrimination. “While an employee cannot ‘leave’ his … skin colour, ethnicity … age or disability ‘at the door’ upon entering his employee’s premises, he may be expected to moderate the exercise of his religion in the workplace.”

The Advocate General’s ruling acts as non-binding advice to the Court of Justice, which will now begin its own deliberations in the case.