Freedom to wear visible political, philosophical or religious signs in the workplace: judgment of the CJEU in the case of Wabe and MH Müller Handel

In the cases of Wabe and MH Müller Handel (joined cases C-804/18 and C-341/19, 15.7.2021) the CJEU ruled on prohibitions on the wearing of visible forms of expression of political, philosophical or religious beliefs in the workplace, thereby applying Directive 2000/78 of 27 November 2000 establishing a general framework for equal treatment in employment and occupation. The two complainants before the referring courts, respectively a special needs carer and a sales assistant, had both been prevented from wearing an Islamic headscarf on the basis of internal rules, applicable in their respective companies, which prohibited the wearing of any visible signs of political, philosophical or religious beliefs in the workplace.

Pursuant to Directive 2000/78, and in keeping with its previous case law (G4S Secure Solutions and Bougnaoui and ADDH), the CJEU carefully distinguished between direct and indirect discrimination on grounds of religion or belief. It thereby recalled that by virtue of Article 52(3) of the EU-Charter of fundamental rights, the right to freedom of conscience and religion, enshrined in Article 10(1) of the EU-Charter, corresponds to the right guaranteed in Article 9 of the Convention and has therefore the same meaning and scope as the latter provision (§§ 48 and 81). However, the CJEU did not draw any conclusions from this correspondence in terms of the limitations to which that right can be subjected.

Rather, it assessed the issue through the prism of the requirement of equal treatment, as prescribed by Directive 2000/78, which is presented as a specific expression of the general principle of non-discrimination enshrined in Article 21 of the EU-Charter (§ 62). At the same time, the CJEU stressed that the interpretation of Directive 2000/78 had to be done having regard not only to Articles 10 and 21 of that Charter but also to the right of parents to ensure the education and teaching of their children in conformity with their religious, philosophical and pedagogical convictions (Article 14(3) of the EU-Charter) and the freedom to conduct a business (Article 16 of the EU-Charter) at stake in the present cases (§ 84).

Interestingly, the CJEU also considered that a national provision such as Article 4(1) of the German Basic Law (Grundgesetz), which requires limitations to the freedom of religion and conscience to be justified by the demonstration of specific rather than general risks, could be applied at domestic level as a provision which is more favourable to the protection of the principle of equal treatment within the meaning of Article 8(1) of Directive 2000/78. Consequently, such a national provision offering a higher protection of the freedom of religion and belief than did Directive 2000/78 could be taken into account in examining the appropriateness of a difference of treatment indirectly based on religion or belief (§ 89).

One might wonder whether this opening towards more protective domestic provisions requiring limitations to the freedom of religion and belief to be justified by evidence of specific rather than general risks might perhaps also ease the tension seemingly existing between the Luxembourg case-law described above and the Strasbourg case-law on the same issue based on Article 9 of the Convention, notably the Eweida jurisprudence (Eweida and Others v. the United Kingdom, 15.1.2013, 48420/10, 59842/10, 51671/10 and 36516/10) which is indeed also based on a case-by-case approach and, thus, necessarily focuses on specific risks.