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By Dries Van Thielen

In a March 14, 2017, case (C‑157/15), the European Court of Justice decided that a company is allowed to fire the wearer of a hijab if the company upholds a neutral stance on religion. The case of the Belgian company G4S versus Samira Achbita and the Centre for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism was so complex, it required a setting of The Grand Chamber (15 judges – including both the president and the vice-president of the court).

The facts

G4S is a company that offers reception & security services to large companies. Since they provide services to a broad range of clientele, G4S had an unwritten rule prohibiting every expression of religious, political, and philosophical belief. In 2003, Samira Achbita was hired as a receptionist.

In April of 2006, Mrs. Achbita announced that she’ll start wearing her hijab during business hours. The executives at G4S advised her not to do so, for the company upholds a strict and neutral policy on religion.

Due to an illness, Mrs. Achbita did not work at the beginning of May. She told her supervisors she will soon return, in hijab.

By the end of May 2006, the governing board of G4S decided to write down the unwritten rule in their business rules, thus prohibiting the expression of the religious, political, and philosophical signs. Mrs. Achbita was made aware of said new rules but continued wearing her hijab.

On June 12, 2006, Mrs. Achbita was fired from her job since she refused to lay off her hijab. She was paid three months of salary and received benefits as mentioned in her contract as a compensation.

Direct Discrimination

Mrs. Achbita wasn’t pleased with the company’s decision. Therefore, she sued G4S, arguing that her dismissal was a form of direct discrimination. Even though courts in Belgium indicated that in this case, no trace of direct discrimination could be detected, she went on to the European Court. The European Court joined in with the earlier decisions. There was no trace of direct discrimination – as stated in art. 1 of  Council Directive 2000/78/EC – for the ban did not target Muslims, but religion in general.

Micropole VS Hijab

During the Summer of 2016, a similar case was widely discussed in the media. A French engineer was fired by her company (Micropole) after clients refused to continue doing business with Micropole for they were embarrassed by the woman in hijab. While this case is still pending, the British judge at the European Court of Justice, Mrs. Eleanor Sharpston dismissed the claim made by Micropole and argued that in this case, the company committed a form of direct discrimination since they targeted Muslims directly:

“Ms. Bougnaoui [the engineer] was treated less favorably on the ground of her religion since a design engineer who had not chosen to manifest his or her religious belief would not have been dismissed. The Advocate General, therefore, concludes that Ms. Bougnaoui’s dismissal amounted to direct discrimination on the ground of religion or belief”.