Sahin v Turkey
European Court of Human Rights (ECHR)
The controversial issue of individuals’ rights to wear religious symbols or dress, and the rules and restrictions placed on those rights, has attracted a great deal of media attention recently.
In a case concerning the ban on students wearing Islamic headscarves in higher education institutions in Turkey, the ECHR found that the ban, while interfering with the applicant’s right to manifest her religion, was justified in principle and legitimate in relation to the aims pursued, and therefore could be regarded as “necessary in a democratic society”. It rejected the applicant’s claim that the ban violated the European Convention on Human Rights.
This case was decided in the specific context of the secularist principles of the Turkish Republic. The court referred to an earlier decision and pointed out that, “in democratic societies, in which several religions coexist within one and the same population, it may be necessary to place restrictions on freedom to manifest one’s religion or belief in order to reconcile the interests of the various groups and ensure that everyone’s beliefs are respected”. It also referred to consideration of the impact of wearing the headscarf, which is “presented or perceived as a compulsory religious duty” on others who may choose not to wear the headscarf.
The issues at stake included the protection of the “rights and freedoms of others” and the “maintenance of public order”. The court concluded “that imposing limitations on freedom in this sphere may, therefore, be regarded as meeting a pressing social need by seeking to achieve those two legitimate aims, especially since, as the Turkish courts stated… this religious symbol has taken on political significance in Turkey in recent years”.
A similar issue concerning the ban on wearing of a jilbab at school, a full-length gown that covers the whole body except for the face and hands, has recently been the subject of judicial review in the UK. In that case, the court held that there had been no breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.
We are not aware of any similar cases being decided under the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003, which were introduced at the end of last year. However, it can only be a matter of time before the tribunal is faced with addressing these issues in the context of dress codes at work.
Banning religious dress or symbols at work is likely to be indirect discrimination unless it can be justified, that is shown to be a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.
What you should do
- Review your dress code and consider making changes if appropriate.
- Consider providing diversity training to line managers.