By George Coucounis

The right of every person to employment is protected both by the constitution and by other legislative provisions, and religion, political views, national origin and social origin are not valid grounds for termination of employment.

Equal treatment in employment and work is guaranteed under Directive 2000/78/EC of the Council of the European Union and its purpose is to establish a general framework for combating discrimination based on religion or belief, special needs, age or sexual orientation.

The principle of equal treatment means the absence of direct discrimination when one person is treated less favourably than another person. Indirect discrimination occurs when a prima facie neutral provision, criterion or practice is likely to cause disadvantageous treatment of a person, unless it is objectively justified by a legitimate aim and the means to achieve it are expedient and necessary. This directive applies to all persons, in the public and private sectors, including public bodies, with regard to working conditions and terms of employment, including dismissals and remuneration.

The question of whether the use of religious symbols in the workplace could be prohibited by a public authority for all its employees was raised by an employee of Ans municipality in Belgium and one day it will happen in Cyprus as well. In particular, a female employee of the municipality, who performed the duties of a supervisor without coming into contact with the public, was forbidden to wear a Muslim headscarf in her workplace. A dispute arose when the city council introduced an obligation of “exclusive neutrality” in the workplace. This meant that all city employees are prohibited from wearing any visible symbol that could reveal their beliefs, such as religious or philosophical, regardless of whether it comes into contact with the public.

The affected person initiated legal proceedings in order to establish that her religious freedom had been violated and filed a lawsuit before the labour court of Liège for the removal of the insult and its omission in the future, opposing the decisions of the municipality.

The court, maintaining doubts as to the compatibility with the provisions of Directive 2000/78/EC of the disputed provision imposing an obligation of “exclusive neutrality” on all employees of a public authority, suspended the proceedings and submitted a relevant preliminary question to the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg, which is solely responsible for the interpretation of union law.

The European Court issued its decision, case C-148/2022, on 28/11/2023, deciding that an internal rule established by the employer which prohibits the use of any visible symbol of belief, including philosophical or religious beliefs, in the workplace does not constitute direct discrimination, since it indiscriminately covers every manifestation of these beliefs and treats all employees of the business in the same way, imposing a neutral dressing on them by excluding such symbols.

It stressed that since anyone may profess a particular religion or have particular religious, philosophical or spiritual beliefs, such a rule, insofar as it is applied generally and indiscriminately, does not introduce different treatment based on a criterion which is inextricably linked to religion or these beliefs.

It also emphasised, in this regard, from the established jurisprudence of the court that an internal rule established by the employer and which prohibits the conspicuous use of any symbol of belief, including philosophical or religious beliefs, in the workplace may constitute indirect discrimination based on religion or beliefs, however, such a different treatment does not constitute indirect discrimination if it is objectively justified by a legitimate purpose and if the means to achieve this purpose are appropriate and necessary.

With regard to the existence of a legitimate purpose, it appears that according to the municipality, the disputed work regulation is intended to implement the principle of neutrality of the public service, which finds a legal basis in the principle of impartiality and neutrality of the state. It concluded that such an internal rule of a municipal authority can be justified by its desire to establish a neutral administrative environment, provided that the specific rule is expedient, necessary and proportionate taking into account the various rights and interests involved.

George Coucounis is a lawyer specialising in the Immovable Property Law, based in Larnaca, email [email protected]