22nd March 2017

Dress codes and religious discrimination

What is religious discrimination?

Religion or belief is one of the ‘protected characteristics’ covered by the Equality Act 2010.  The Equality Act prohibits discrimination on any of the ‘protected characteristics’.

It prohibits discrimination directly because of someone’s religion or belief.  It also prohibits indirect discrimination whereby a provision, criteria or practice places that worker at a disadvantage and there is no objective justification for the discriminatory treatment.

Further, a job applicant or employee must not be subjected to harassment relating to religion or belief, or be victimised because they have made or intend to make a complaint under the Equality Act or because they are intending to do things in connection with the Equality Act.

“Religion” means any religion and a reference to a religion includes a reference to a lack of religion.  “Belief” means any religious or philosophical belief and a reference, again, can include a reference to a lack of belief.

Recent case of Achbita

The reason religious discrimination has been at the forefront recently is in respect to wearing religious garments in the work place. Although the previous case of Eweida was in respect to whether a BA cabin crew member could wear a crucifix on a necklace, the more recent case is that of Achbita v G4S Secure Solutions.

Ms Achbita worked in Belgium as a receptionist for G4S.  She bought a claim of wrongful dismissal and/or discrimination against G4S when she was dismissed because of her intention to wear the Islamic head scarf.  The G4S code of conduct stated that employees “are not permitted to wear any religious, political, philosophical symbols while on duty”.  Her case went to the lower Courts in Belgium and was appealed and referred up to the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

The ECJ noted that G4S’s internal rule applied to all beliefs without distinction and treated all employees in the same way.  She was not being treated to other G4S staff.  ECJ held, therefore, that the rule did not introduce difference of treatment based directly on religion or belief and so did not give rise to direct discrimination.  It went on to hold that the internal rule could amount to indirect discrimination, where objective justification would then need to be considered.

Objective Justification

When considering whether something is objectively justified the ECJ stated that it would be a legitimate aim for G4S to have the idea of an image of neutrality towards its public and private customers.  Such a policy would have to be pursued in a consistent and systematic manner to ensure it was appropriate and proportionate and perhaps should only cover those workers who interact with customers.  The ECJ highlighted that any national Court would have to consider whether G4S could have offered Ms Achbita a role not involving any visual contact with customers, instead of dismissing her or whether this would have been too much of an additional burden.

As always, objective justification is a complex argument to run but it is a useful exercise for any employer to consider before implementing a dress code. Some points to consider are:

  • Why do we really need this dress code?  What is the legitimate aim?
  • Is there any other way of achieving the legitimate aim that does not have such a discriminatory effect?
  • Is the rule appropriate and proportionate?

If you have any questions about employment law matters and discrimination issues of any kind, please do contact us on 01730 268211 or at

N.B. Please note that the above information is a guide only and does not constitute legal advice. We recommend seeking specialist legal advice on your own particular circumstances