Religious Symbols May Be Banned by Employers in Europe

March 14, 2017
From the website voilechic.ca, a retailer of hijabs

The European Court of Justice has ruled that employers can prevent workers from wearing religious symbols, including articles of clothing. What does that say about freedom of religion in Europe?

You might think that the decision is an attack on religion, but appearances can be deceiving. The Court’s decision is explicitly about “any political, philosophical, or religious sign,” not religion alone. That reflects a point of view that’s alien to Americans, but very familiar in France: that religion is just another school of thought. In America, on the other hand, religion is a way of life.

The American Revolution was fought in part to protect local freedom of religion in thirteen diverse colonies. In sharp contrast, the French Revolution had a strong anti-clerical impulse, resisting an official Church that could levy taxes, own land, and interfere with people’s lives. For the French, democracy means keeping religion out of public life. In America, our money says “In God We Trust.”

That leads to incompatible ideas about the relationship between democracy and religion. Americans start with the premise that individual liberty is the ultimate goal. The freedom to express ourselves politically, religiously, or as consumers is paramount. In Europe there’s a different balance between personal freedom and the common welfare – the laws are more likely to limit individual choice for the sake of some collective value, like equality.

For the Court of Justice, true equality amounts to banning all expression of personal philosophy, without discriminating among them. The problem is, they do end up endorsing one particular philosophy: the idea that secularism is neutral, and therefore should be the norm. That’s justified in their minds by the belief that it’s fair and proper for individuals to sacrifice their self-expression for the sake of neutrality in the workplace.

That’s strikingly different from America, where laws require employers to make “reasonable accommodation” to employees’ religious practices. That notion of tolerance is so deeply rooted that we believe it’s a fundamental aspect of justice. We feel that it would infringe on our liberties to push religious expression out of the workplace.

And there’s the rub. When two sides hold fundamentally different assumptions about justice, there’s no way to reconcile what they each see as fair and reasonable. In our adversarial culture, that leads all too quickly to alarmist declarations that the other side has ill intent. It’s more productive to negotiate practical compromises than to argue from first principles.

The most effective response to this ruling is not to attack it as an assault on religion. Better to persuade major European employers to take a public stand against banning religious garb in their workplaces—in other words, to convince them to lead by example. For those who wear a kippah or a hijab or a crucifix or a turban, that would accomplish a lot more than self-righteous denunciations.

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