The Advocate General of the European Court of Justice has said that it is not religious discrimination for an employer to stop an employee from wearing an Islamic headscarf at work.

The case - Achbita v Centrum voor gelijkheid van kansen en voor racismebestrijding – concerned a woman who had worked as a receptionist for G4S Secure Solutions NV in Belgium from 2003.

When Ms Achbita joined the company, it operated an unwritten rule which prohibited employees from wearing any visible signs of their “political, philosophical or religious beliefs” in the workplace. This was subsequently incorporated into the G4S employee code of conduct with effect from June 2006.

After starting to wear her headscarf to work on 15 May, Ms Achbita was dismissed in mid-June. She subsequently brought a claim of wrongful dismissal and discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief under the Equal Treatment Directive 2000.

The Advocate General has now held, in a preliminary ruling, that it is not direct discrimination to prevent a female employee of Muslim faith from wearing an Islamic headscarf at work if it violates a general company rule prohibiting visible religious symbols in the workplace (as opposed to stereotypes against a particular religion). The Advocate General also concluded that even if direct discrimination was established, the ban could be justified under the “occupational requirement” exemption.

This decision comes in advance of the full decision of the Court which will be published in due course and covered in LELR.

Neil Todd of Thompsons Solicitors commented “The opinion of the Advocate General is interesting in several respects albeit the observation that the employer did not prohibit its employees from practicing their religion but rather only required them not to wear certain items of clothing, is a somewhat artificial distinction and therefore unconvincing. It remains to be seen how the ECJ will deal with this difficult issue.”

To read the decision of the Advocate General, go to: