Church of England responds to EU headscarf ruling

The European Court of Justice has ruled that employers are within their rights to ban visible symbols of religion, including clothing and accessories. The Church of England issued a statement via Tumblr decrying the ruling as “preferencing ‘freedom to conduct a business” above the religious freedom of expression, and voicing concerns about the potential breadth of the ruling’s impact on individuals of faith.

…A Church of England spokesman said,

“This ruling raises significant questions about freedom of religion and its free expression. Whether it be Sikhism and the wearing of turbans and kara through to the wearing of a cross.”

The BBC explains that the ruling came after a receptionist was fired from the private security company G4S when she began wearing a headscarf to work as part of her religious expression.

G4S’s rules prohibited “any manifestation of such beliefs without distinction”, and were therefore not directly discriminatory, the court said.

It said “an employer’s desire to project an image of neutrality towards both its public and private sector customers is legitimate” – but national courts had to make sure this policy of neutrality was applied equally to all employees.

In practice, such a policy must therefore also ban other religious insignia such as crucifixes, skullcaps and turbans, the court confirmed to the BBC.

The Church of England Tumblr blog criticized the assumption that neutrality is best represented by suppressing religious expression.

Equally troubling is the assumption of “neutrality” within the ruling. The imposition of blanket bans – whilst often seeking honourable outcomes – may represent a worldview based on dogmatic or ideological assumptions which may unjustly limit individual rights.”

The Rt Revd Nicholas Baines, the Bishop of Leeds, said:

“It is important that we study this ruling in more detail and work out its implications in different scenarios and for different groups in society. Inevitably, this judgement once again raises vital questions about freedom of expression (not just freedom of religion), and shows that the denial of freedom of religion is not a neutral act, contrary to how it might be portrayed. There is no neutral space. Furthermore, it illustrates how far we have to go as a secular society in working out what freedom of expression actually means.

“Secondly, it once again illustrates the problem in a ‘rights culture’ of whose rights take priority in the hierarchy when rights collide – and according to which criteria they should be judged.

“There is clearly more work to be done in relation to religious literacy.”

Read more background to the case at the BBC; find the CofE response here.

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2 Comments
  1. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says everyone has the right “either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” Religious insignia and dress are manifestations of “practice” that should be respected.

  2. Curtis Chase

    There are occasional moments, when I am proud to be a member of the Anglican communion. This is one of them.

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