by Sophie Perez Fernandes, Junior Editor
Our editorial of November 2016 related to two preliminary references proceedings at the time pending before the Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ) concerning the question of religious expression at work and, particularly, the highly sensitive issue of the wearing of Islamic headscarves (and not the full veil) in the workplace. The issues raised in both cases required the interpretation of the concept of ‘discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief’ within the meaning of the Anti-Discrimination Directive – the Directive 2000/78[i]. Let us recall the fundamental questions at issue: is a private employer allowed to prohibit a female employee of Muslim faith from wearing a headscarf in the workplace?; is the dismissal of an employee who refuses to comply with such rules restricting the wearing of religious symbols at work unlawful?
On 14 March 2016, the Grand Chamber delivered both the Achbita (C-157/15) and the Bougnaoui (C-188/15) judgments, two significant decisions in relation to discrimination in employment on grounds of religion. The facts at the origin of each case were slightly different.
In the first case, Ms Achbita started to work for G4S as a receptionist in 2003 and complied with the rule according to which workers could not wear visible signs of their political, philosophical or religious beliefs in the workplace, an unwritten rule at the time. In 2006 Ms Achbita informed her employers that she intended, in future, to wear an Islamic headscarf at work and, in reply, was informed that such intention was contrary to G4S’s position of neutrality. Shortly afterwards, the above mentioned unwritten rule was written down: the workplace regulations thus stipulated that «employees are prohibited, in the workplace, from wearing any visible signs of their political, philosophical or religious beliefs and/or from engaging in any observance of such beliefs». Shortly after the amendment was approved, Ms Achbita was dismissed on account of her continuing insistence that she wished to wear the Islamic headscarf at work.
In the second case, Ms Bougnaoui was informed at a student recruitment fair by a representative of Micropole that the wearing of an Islamic headscarf might pose a problem when she was in contact with customers of the company. When Ms Bougnaoui began to work at Micropole in 2008 as an intern, she was initially wearing a bandana and subsequently an Islamic headscarf. Micropole nevertheless employed her at the end of her internship. Almost a year later, Ms Bougnaoui was dismissed. A customer of Micropole’s with whom Ms Bouganoui had worked informed her employers that her wearing the headscarf had upset some of their employees and requested that there should be «no veil next time». Despite the request of her employers, Ms Bouganoui refused to agree not to wear the headscarf in the future and was thus fired in 2009.