Freedom of religion and belief in the European workplace

Publication Date01 Jun 2013
AuthorMarie-Claire Foblets
Freedom of religion
and belief in the
European workplace:
Which way forward
and what role for the
European Union?
Marie-Claire Foblets
In this concluding contribution to the special issue on practices of reasonable accom-
modation for religion or belief in the workplace, the striking differences and similarities
between the six country studies dealing with England, the Netherlands, Denmark,
Bulgaria, France and Turkey are discussed. An important observation that emerges from
all six analyses, and gives reason for considerable optimism as regards the development
of protection of religious freedom in Europe, is that reasonable accommodations are
making headway on the ground, even if formal law has not given them binding force. This
conclusion ends by addressing the role of European Union (EU) law in promoting labour
market policies that can successfully reduce the impact of exclusions and promote the
greatest possible inclusion with regard to religious affiliation and/or belief, and also
proposes some specific avenues for EU initiative in this area.
Religion and belief, human rights, European Union law, reasonable accommodation,
employment, religious diversity, secularism, RELIGARE
Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Germany
Corresponding author:
Marie-Claire Foblets, Department of Law and Anthropology, Max Planck Institute for Social
Anthropology, Advokatenweg 36, Halle a/d Saale, Sachsen-Anhalt 06144, Germany.
International Journalof
Discrimination and theLaw
13(2-3) 240–255
ªThe Author(s) 2013
Reprints and permission:
DOI: 10.1177/1358229113504350
The point of entry that binds together the contributions of this special issue is the protec-
tion of the freedom of religion and belief and its various modes of operation within the
framework of the workplace in six countries: five European Union (EU) Member States
and Turkey.
The protection of religion or belief under State law, as well as the meaning and extent
of protection against discrimination on grounds of religion or belief, is a controversial
subject, to put it mildly. A policy that is sensitive to religious diversity is often perceived
as a mixed blessing, in particular when it is seen as serving mainly the interests of people
other than the majority in society. Such a policy can turn the place of religion in dem-
ocratic societies and its protection under State law into a most contentious battlefield.
The issue has been the subject of numerous studies, especially in France and the UK.
For some who take a more critical view of this process, legal protection of religion or
belief, especially if minorities are involved, can easily run the risk of going too far; such
critics are wary of any policy that might offer individuals a choice between State law and
a parallel set of (in this case religious) norms. Obviously, any attempt to combat discrim-
ination might come up against existing political, economic and social equilibria that have
been achieved in view of (re)shaping the social fabric by prohibiting unjustified unequal
treatment of particular (groups of) citizens. However, as the different contributions in
this issue demonstrate, there are divergent views on these questions. In the view of some,
going down this path in policy terms could lead to reducing State law to no more than a
supplementary legal system. Invoking the protection of freedom of religion and belief
may indeed allow – in the name of human rights – for minority norms to be applied,
provided doing so does not circumvent or avoid the primary objectives set by State law.
Regardless of the position one takes, however – critical or positive – the questions raised
by the protection of freedom of religion and belief are interesting, since they lend support
to the thesis that the law can ‘‘be common without being uniform’’.
In other words, it
should be possible for a law to remain unitary while at the same time allowing for the
coexistence of other norms, provided that it leads to a more fair (i.e. inclusive) policy.
The authors who have contributed to this journal issue were all participants in the FP7
RELIGARE research project on religious diversity and secular models in Europe.
question of how freedom of religion and belief is protected within a State’s labour law
and employment policy more generally is a complex one that deserves a multi-faceted
discussion. The discussion is influenced by a number of tendencies at work in Western
societies that, in recent years, have begun to attribute increasing importance to individual
personal development.
This development calls for an appropriate legal approach, one
that guarantees individuals and groups who follow particular religious or cultural
practices the possibility to coexist and thrive – including in the workplace – with other
individuals and groups that claim different identities. The challenge is enormous. Case
law in this area indicates a move towards a growing consideration of the protection of
human rights and freedoms, even if most courts have so far tended to be prudent in this
regard in order to ensure that the claim for protection is not used merely as a defence
strategy without sufficient guarantee that one is genuinely dealing with respect for a
person’s religion or belief.
Foblets 241

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