The place of religion and other beliefs within the workplace is fairly controversial, especially in France where the principle of secularism is deeply entrenched in the society as a whole. In this context, the pivotal issue is to determine the extent to which employees can be part of a professional environment and still live in accordance with their beliefs.
As a preliminary comment, and with respect to religion, it should be noted that the principle of secularism – which prohibits in particular the display of any religious signs and require workers to behave according to a principle of religious neutrality – only applies to public servants and private employees working as part of a public service. Therefore, private employers cannot, as a general rule, enforce a neutrality-based policy with regard to religion in the workplace and thus ban any religious expression from employees. Conversely, unless provided otherwise and except for the situation of specific businesses, the employees’ religious beliefs are not incorporated in the employment relationship and the employer is not required to adapt the employees’ professional obligations in light of their beliefs. The same principle applies to political views.
Generally speaking, the employees’ protection is ensured mainly through the general principle of non-discrimination in the workplace, which prohibits any employer from treating an employee differently on the basis of certain illicit grounds such as the employee’s political views or religion. Therefore, any employer discriminating against an employee on the ground of his/her beliefs (political, religious or other) faces the same sanctions as any other type of discrimination, i.e. in particular criminal sanctions (up to 3 years’ imprisonment and a fine of 45,000€ for an individual and 225,000€ for a legal entity) as well as the nullity of any decision made in violation of such principle, in addition to possible damages as compensation for any loss suffered.
In addition, employees’ beliefs are also protected by virtue of the general employment law principle that any limitations on employees’ rights and freedoms must be justified by the nature of the task to be performed and be proportional to the purpose sought.
In practice, several aspects arising from the consideration of employees’ beliefs in the workplace have been the focus of particular discussion. Under applicable case law, it appears that, provided that the employer does not abuse its authority and justifies its decision on considerations relating to the proper running of the company, employees are not allowed to:
- invoke their religion or beliefs in order to be exempted from some of their professional obligations;
- request additional holiday or days off to participate in religious ceremonies or events (conversely, there are specific leaves awarded to public persons – mayors, senators …);
- request a more flexible working pattern, i.e. a change in working hours or a request to work from home, on the basis of their beliefs.
Case law regarding employers’ infringement on employees’ political views is fairly rare. There is more controversy regarding protection of religious views, and especially on the ability to prohibit employees from wearing the Islamic veil in the workplace. In this respect, it follows from a recent case law that a general prohibition of the Islamic veil in the workplace would not be conceivable. The prohibition of the Islamic veil would only be possible for very specific reasons (such as security or hygiene reasons), but would, save in very particular situations, be more difficult to justify if based solely on more subjective reasons such as those related to interaction with customers. This case law perfectly exemplifies the method of reasoning that judges will apply to most employer’s decisions in determining if a violation of the employees’ freedom has taken place: while general prohibitions are not permitted, legitimate and proportionate restrictions may be enforceable.