Employers Can Ban The Burka

The high court of the European Union has ruled that it is not discrimination on religious grounds for an employer to dismiss women who refuse to remove their headscarves at work. The case involved two women, one from France and one from Belgium, both of whom were fired for refusing to comply with their employers’ demands to remove the coverings while at work, as reported here.

The court said that an employer’s policy of banning all “visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious sign” is not discriminatory. It went on to say that, absent such a strict neutrality policy, the taking into account a customer’s wishes not to be served by a woman wearing Islamic dress could not be taken as an occupational requirement that is not discriminatory. In other words, employers must have a policy of neutrality in place or risk discrimination claims if they attempt to regulate what can and cannot be worn by their employees.

At first glance this seems reasonable. Simply put a neutrality policy in place. As applied to headscarves, it is simple. What about, though, Jewish yarmulkes, Star of David or crucifix necklaces, wearing of ashes on Ash Wednesday, or even LDS garments, which, though worn beneath clothing, are often visible in outline?

The ruling affects not only religious but political and philosophical symbols as well. That would, it seems, include a rainbow or gay pride symbol, an equality symbol used by the Human Rights campaign and even a pink ribbon for breast cancer awareness. It could extend to lapel pins of the American flag since that would be a “political sign.”

I don’t know but I suspect that the EU cases arose because someone complained about being subjected to the sight of an employee wearing a headscarf, which is typically associated with Islam. Some would say that is an intolerant and unenlightened attitude, which it is. But do some of those same people feel the same way about crosses on the roadside to commemorate the death of a law enforcement officer or the words “In God We Trust” in a public building or the keeping of Christ in Christmas? Those objections seem to be enlightened enough to bring lawsuits to remove the offending items.

The EU decision is a pragmatic one. If you want to ban anything remotely offensive to someone, ban everything. Maybe everyone should wear the same uniform. Except that won’t work because whatever color the uniform is, it will undoubtedly offend someone. The real solution might be to make it so that we do everything from our computers in our basements so we don’t have to risk offense by having any human interaction.