Can private undertakings hide behind “religious neutrality”?

At first glance, matters of religious belief and practice may seem as remote from the everyday concerns of the European Court of Justice as can be. Yet no less than three high-profile cases are currently pending before the Court in which religion is front and centre. The question which the Court needs to answer in each of these proceedings is essentially this: to what extent does EU law require accommodation of religious observance? The first two cases, Achbita and Bougnaoui, concern the issue of whether the prohibition of discrimination based on religion under the Employment Equality Directive 2000/78 makes it unlawful for a private-sector undertaking to dismiss a Muslim employee because she refuses to remove her veil at work. In the third case, Liga van Moskeeën, the Court is asked whether Regulation 1099/2009 on the protection of animals at the time of killing leaves sufficient room for ritual slaughter to be consistent with the freedom of religion as enshrined in Article 10 of the Charter and Article 9 of the ECHR.

It is no coincidence that all three proceedings originated in Belgium and France. Both States have a sizeable and growing Muslim community that demands respect for its religious practices. Yet both States take a singular, stringent approach to the religious diversity of their inhabitants, which is often labelled “religious neutrality”, “secularism” or (in France) “laïcité”. In the Franco-Belgian tradition, State neutrality to religion implies, amongst other things, that religion must have no influence on State affairs. One of the consequences that flow from this conception of neutrality is that public servants in France and Belgium are prohibited from wearing religious symbols ...

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