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What’s discrimination and what’s not

MANCHESTER (CNS): A ruling in the European Court of Justice allowing employers to ban employees from wearing visible religious insignia prompted Bishop Philip Egan, from Portsmouth in England, to comment that it is an infringement of human rights.

The European Court had considered two cases. One involves a company banning a Muslim woman from wearing a hijab (headscarf), as internal policy does not allow employees to display any visible signs of political, philosophical or religious beliefs.

The second involved a client of a company complaining that a Muslim employee was wearing a hijab.

In the first case, the court said in its ruling that it could find nothing discriminatory in the action of the company, but in the second case it noted that discrimination could not be ruled out, as the matter could not be considered to be an occupational requirement.

Reactions from religious groups varied considerably, with bishops, rabbis and Islamic leaders being highly critical of the ruling, and Christian legal experts saying that they are quite happy with the decision.

In saying that the ruling puts a limitation on religious expression, Bishop Egan said that it could lead to Christians being banned from wearing a crucifix or St. Christopher medal.

The Conference of European Rabbis and the Islamic Human Rights Commission in London described it as a sign that faith communities are no longer welcome in Europe.

Bishop Nicholas Baines, from Leeds, said, “This judgement again raises vital questions about freedom of expression and shows that the denial of freedom of religion is not a neutral act, contrary to how it might be portrayed.”

However, the matter was viewed quite differently by the Catholic legal society, the Thomas More Legal Centre. Its director, Neil Addison, stated, “I am perfectly happy with it.”

He pointed out that a blanket ban on symbols must include non-religious manifestations of belief as well, like a gay rights ribbon.

“You can’t ban one without the other,” he said.

The chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre concurred, saying that the court decision “simply clarified a point of law in relation to defining the directive and left it to the national courts to address the substantive questions involved.”

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