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The European Court’s ruling on religious clothing is wrong. Secularism is not neutral


This article first appeared on the Premier Blog

The European Court’s ruling on religious clothing is wrong. Secularism is not neutral
By: David Robertson | 14th March 2017   David Robertson explains why he believes today’s ruling by the European Court of Justice that employers can ban workers from wearing religious symbols at work is wrong

How are you dressed today? I don’t want to be too personal or share too much information but let me tell you that I am sitting at my desk with a pair of jeans, old walking shoes, and a loose fitting top.

Trendy ministers eat your heart out!

When I go out to visit I have a slightly worn jacket, a large hat and a tartan scarf (this is after all spring in Scotland!). Does that count as neutral clothing? Maybe I should ask my employer who, according to the Inland Revenue, is God.

Today the European Court of Justice handed down a ruling that states that companies can ban “any political, philosophical or religious sign” from work without being guilty of direct discrimination.

This ruling raises so many questions: Does this mean that indirect discrimination is ok? What constitutes a political sign? And does anyone know what a philosophical sign is?! Platonic rings? Confucian shoes? William Lane Craig glasses?

Of course this ruling is really about Islamic headdress. The whole case came about because the security company G4S fired a receptionist for wearing an Islamic headscarf at her work in Belgium. The whole judgment, which found in favour of the company, hinges on the notion of ‘neutrality’. This means that a company must ban all religious symbols or none.

Complex questions
So what is the Christian perspective on this? I guess if I choose to wear a cross to my work it would be ok, although us Presbyterians are not too hot on religious symbols anyway. But what if the local bank teller, doctor or security wore a fish badge?  When is something neutral and when is it not? When is it a symbol and when is it clothing? Is wearing a hat or headscarf a fashion statement or a statement of religious belief that a woman is in submission to her head (1 Corinthians 11).

Would wearing a pink ribbon for World Aids Day be a breach of the philosophical sign rule? Would any company fire someone because they wore a rainbow flag badge?

The issue is more than a little complex. Firstly we would have to agree that clothing which prevents someone actually doing their work should be banned. Wearing a full veil burka as a doctor is probably not the best idea, neither is having a turban when you are a parachute instructor. Being asked to remove a cross as a nurse or doctor because all jewelry is banned due to the risk of infection or of getting caught in sensitive medical equipment, is not being discriminated against. If the company has a uniform policy, presumably when you took the job you knew that there was a uniform and as part of your working conditions you agreed to wear it. To claim discrimination because you then want to adorn or change the uniform is neither rational nor honest.

Those are the simple cases. But what about the more difficult ones? My fear is that there is a real danger of discrimination. Imagine that I go into my local doctor’s surgery (sadly something I do all too frequently) and I discover that the doctor randomly assigned to me is wearing an Islamic headscarf. If I object to seeing her should the surgery require her to remove the headscarf or be fired? Surely not?! Why should my discriminatory views be the criteria for everyone else? I can request that I be seen by a male if I so choose because I might want to discuss ‘men’s issues’, but I’m not going to be discussing theology (although that has occasionally happened!), so why should my prejudices determine the company’s policies. And that must cut all ways. Why would a teller at a bank wearing a cross be a problem to anyone but a bigot? The customer is not always right.

The problem is that there is no such thing as absolute neutrality. Every culture has its values, ethics and codes that are informed by its religious or indeed anti-religious views. Companies, like individuals, are wise to take note of the local customs and not just have the arrogance of the imperialists who assume that every civilized person goes along with their dress codes and cultural standards. When in Rome. Or as Paul would say “to the Jews I became as a Jew, to the Greeks as a Greek”.

The myth of neutrality
The problem with the ECJ ruling is that it seems to be working on the assumption that secularism is ‘neutral’. This is a dangerous myth, propagated by secular groups, who genuinely believe that their way is the only true way and everything else is deviation. This is of course what they say about education, politics, work and all other forms of public life. But it’s a myth.

Secularism is ‘neutral’ about everything except secular philosophy.

For me the irony of the ruling is that it is yet another illustration of how intolerant and monocultural secular authority invariably is. As a Christian I know that religious and political symbols are just that – symbols. I recognise that all human beings are made in the image of God, and bear that image. I also know that wearing a cross is meaningless, unless I come to the cross and seek forgiveness from the Christ who died on that cross. I don’t care about the hijab; I care about the person wearing it.

I agree that work is not a place to proselytise – whether for a religious, political or philosophical cause (that’s the Nietzsche t-shirt gone!) but surely we are a mature enough society that we can permit differences of religious expression – even at work? And for those of us who are Christians, surely we can obey the apostle’s command that whatever we do, we work as for the Lord? Perhaps you shouldn’t wear the baseball cap saying ‘Jesus is my real Boss’; but if you have that attitude, I will guarantee that your company boss will appreciate you more!


  1. We have to work on the assumption that the world is against us. The law really was to deal with Islam, but the could not be seen to be doing that, so they apply it to all religions, and christians are less likely to protest. or if we do, we are ignored.

  2. From the part of the judgement quoted, it went further than the circumstances of the particular case required. In English law it could be regarded as “obiter dictum” and therefore not binding precedent, but perhaps persuasive in future cases. But I know next to nothing about EU law. It seems that the case could have been decided by limiting the scope of the judgement to employer’s code of dress taking priority without covering the law in fog. The extent of the judgement appears disproportionate.

    And what about employees displaying tattoos? Red, blue, yellow , green ties?

    Wearing soccer armbands for remembrance day may now fall foul of EU law, let alone the edicts of FIFA.

  3. It seems as though May has ruled out this law applying in the UK. This is the first justification of the reason that I voted for Brexit, and we are not yet out. Perhaps secular Scotland would want the law to apply by remaining part the EU. Wither liberal equality.

  4. I am confused. Everything you wrote to this point was fine:

    “If I object to seeing her should the surgery require her to remove the headscarf or be fired? Surely not?! Why should my discriminatory views be the criteria for everyone else?”

    Which twists away from the judgement. The judgement was about a uniform that said no religious etc. symbols (although it seems this was an unwritten rule). It was about an employer policy, not individual preferences. What you failed to mention was that in the same judgement a French firm was told that a rule banning employees from wearing religious symbols when in contact with customers was discrimination, particularly when it only applied to one faith group only.

    People with personal preferences do try to influence things around them. Its why you get Jews not wanting to sit next to women on planes. Or Orthodox Christians in Russia backing domestic violence (they claim that the state should not interfere in family matters and that calls to make domestic violence a crime are informed by Western influences that want to impose liberal values on Russia).

    But that wasnt the issue here.

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