Prejudice unveiled? Headscarfs, the Sun and the ECJ


Kelvin MacKenzie's Sun column suggesting that Fatima Manji, a journalist who is also a British Muslim and wears a headscarf, should not have presented Channel 4's coverage of the Nice attack, has been almost universally reviled.  No doubt the notoriously Eurosceptic MacKenzie will be keenly aware that the European Court of Justice is about to grapple with a similar issue. 

There are two pending cases before the ECJ concerning employers who banned the wearing of religious and political symbols at work.   In one case, a receptionist was dismissed after she began wearing a headscarf to work.  In the other, an engineer who wore the headscarf was dismissed after she refused to remove her headscarf when visiting the premises of a client which claimed its employees were "embarrassed" by her wearing it. 

In each case, an Advocate-General (a senior lawyer who advises the ECJ) has given their opinion already - but the two opinions (delivered by different Advocates General) are starkly different.  One Advocate-General thought a policy banning religious and political symbols was lawful, in the interests of projecting a "neutral" corporate image, the other thought such a policy could only be justified in very limited circumstances (e.g. if it was necessary for health and safety reasons). 

The ECJ will give its ruling shortly.  It will be the first time the ECJ has ruled on the issue of religious discrimination (although the European Court of Human Rights, which many a tabloid has confused with the ECJ, has dealt with such cases).   The Court will need to face head-on some of the fundamental philosophical questions around religious discrimination.   How far should individuals be free outwardly to express their religious identity  at work?  How far do businesses need to accommodate religious beliefs?  Should businesses be allowed to pander to the "discomfort" (or just plain prejudice) of their customers?  If religion/belief is a matter of choice, rather than being innate, does that make a difference to how far the law should go to protect it?  

Whichever way the ECJ rules, the outcome is sure to be controversial - and fascinating. 

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As a British, Asian, Muslim woman who wears a headscarf, it makes me utterly proud to see Manji breaking through stereotypes and glass ceilings to front a major UK news channel. The fact Manji is the only woman in a headscarf in Britain to do so on national television is an achievement that should be celebrated.
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