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Can employers ban headscarves?

View profile for Louise Taft
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It has been difficult to escape press coverage of the decision of the EU Court of Justice that sacking a Belgian employee for refusing to remove her headscarf was not unlawful discrimination.

G4S had a general policy that customer facing staff should not wear ANY religious, political or philosophical symbols whilst on duty. A female receptionist indicated that she would start wearing a headscarf. She was sacked when she refused to remove it. The European Court found that the policy was not direct discrimination and that whilst it could be indirect discrimination, G4S’s policy of neutrality justified the ban. It was expressly clear that a ban on headscarves alone, without banning other religious dress or jewellery would be discriminatory. It also suggested that G4S should have considered moving the employee to a non customer facing role, where it would not be proportionate to impose a ban.

Reporting of the case has centred around an assertion that the decision means that employers can ban headscarves. This is, however, a dangerous assumption. UK employers would be unwise to impose such a ban without careful thought because the decision only confirmed that this particular policy in this particular context was justified. There are several factors a UK employer should bear in mind:

A ban should be restricted only to those employees who interact with customers or service users, where it is considered that religious neutrality is expected. A ban for employees who don’t see customers or service users is unlikely to be justified.

The UK is a plural society well used to expressions of religious observance. It is not uncommon to see customer facing workers wearing headscarves, turbans and religious jewellery. It might be more difficult for a UK employer to justify a policy of neutrality than one in a country with a more secular outlook.

To avoid direct discrimination, the policy would have to be carefully drafted to ensure that it is completely neutral. ALL religious symbols would have to be banned. For example, it would be unlawful to allow a Christian to wear a cross but ban a Muslim headscarf.

Banning particular religious dress or jewellery for other reasons, such as health and safety, might be more capable of justification.

If you have any questions about whether policies on uniform or appropriate dress are lawful, or want help drafting a policy, contact Louise Taft on 020 7935 3522 or by email on lt@freemanssolicitors.net

Whatever your personal circumstances the above is only a guide and we would advise you to contact us to obtain definitive advice as you will appreciate that each person’s circumstances are unique to them.

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