The ECJ judges were looking into the cases of a Belgian woman who was fired from her job as a receptionist at a security company after she started wearing a headscarf, and of a French IT consultant who was told to remove her scarf after a client complained, and then dismissed when she declined.
In both cases, the ECJ suggested that national courts needed to investigate further to establish whether the women had been discriminated against. In the Belgian case, the court recommended working out if there might have been a simpler solution such as transferring the employee to a role where she was not in contact with the public. Regarding the French consultant, it considered it necessary to establish whether the disciplinary action was purely a response to the client’s whim (which appeared to be the case and would be insufficient grounds for a dismissal) or a legitimate consequence of a broader policy. Taken as a whole, today’s decision upheld the right of employers to enforce ideological neutrality in the workplace as long as it was done fairly and consistently.
This marks a contrast with the thinking of America’s Supreme Court, which in 2015 vindicated a Muslim woman who had been turned down for a job by the clothing chain Abercrombie and Fitch on the grounds that her headscarf was out of step with the look the company was promoting. Since 1964, American civil-rights legislation has told employers to provide “reasonable accommodation” of their workers’ religious needs, unless it would be unbearably burdensome to do so. Today’s decision also reflected a more secularist spirit than did one by the European Court of Human Rights in 2013, which upheld the right of a Christian woman to wear a discreet cross with her British Airways uniform.