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religious-diverse1Religion is never far from the headlines these days. Recently, the Irish Times revealed that despite falling Mass attendance, Ireland remains one of the most religious countries in Europe. Expressions of faith can sometimes venture outside of the home or house of worship and can find their way into the workplace. Sometimes endorsing or prohibiting such practices at work can lead to tension in the office, allegations of discrimination, or even judicial proceedings. Church and state make uneasy bedfellows, but often courts are asked to rule on matters of religion in the workplace. Let’s take a look at a few cases, and see what Irish employers can do protect themselves from any pious palaver or pricey legal proceedings.

Conclusions drawn by courts with national or European jurisdictions have produced verdicts as varied as religious belief itself, and recent rulings by the European Court of Justice on the matter show that the situation is as complicated as it is sensitive. In two cases, Muslim women were dismissed from work for wearing Islamic headscarves. The national courts of France and Belgium asked the ECJ for a ruling, who determined that there was no direct discrimination on religious grounds for both dismissals, leading some media outlets to declare that there was now precedent for a ‘headscarf ban’ across EU member states. The judgement was not quite as clear cut, however, as the ECJ also commented on indirect discrimination, and stated that if a company wished to ban headscarves, it would have to be part of a broader neutrality policy, which would also mean workers practising other religions could not wear paraphernalia such as crucifixes or turbans. Such a policy would likely be impossible to enforce in practice, especially as an earlier ECHR judgement ruled that there ‘is a right to manifest individual faith by wearing religious adornments’.

That case caused British Airways to eventually change their uniform policy, after being taken to court by a Christian employee who was dismissed for refusing to conceal a cross worn around her neck. But the European Court of Justice don’t always rule in favour of the religious party – there was uproar in Italy when they sided with a mother who took offence to a crucifix being displayed in state school classrooms, concluding that her children’s human rights had been violated. This led to some colourful headlines in Italy’s press. Earlier this year, the lifting of a headscarf ban for Turkey’s secular military showed that this is not a headline-grabbing issue that only affects EU countries.

The Irish have certainly grabbed many headlines on the subject too. In 2014, Kerry county councillors sparked a national debate when they decided to erect a crucifix in the Tralee council chambers. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael councillors displayed a rare unity, putting aside their differences to join forces and approve the measure. It is unfortunate that the same spirit of unity could not be shared between a caretaker and teacher in a 2015 case, when the humanist teacher objected to a statue of the Virgin Mary being in his classroom. He removed it, and when the caretaker sought to put it back in the classroom, a scuffle ensued, leading to the caretaker receiving neck wounds and the teacher being sanctioned.

What can Irish businesses do to ensure a scuffle-free existence when it comes to matters of religion? As an employer, you might think that there would be no harm in displaying an article of your own faith in your workplace, and legally speaking, you would be broadly correct (an Irish court has yet to see a specific challenge to religious iconography at work). There is Catholic imagery all over Ireland, including in some workplaces. Last year’s census showed Ireland is 78.3% Catholic, a statistic which may bolster a Churchgoer’s desire to hang a crucifix or a statue in the office. But comparing the data with the 2011 census shows the percentage of Catholics dropped from 84% while minority religions such as Islam and Hinduism have seen marked increases, mainly due to increased immigration. There is nothing wrong with expressing one’s beliefs in the workplace, but it is important to consider what may cause unintentional offence to those of a different religion. One needs to take a pluralistic view on what to display, take into account the opinions of others, and overall take a softly-softly approach to personal expression at work.

Conversely, you may not want anything indicating allegiance to any religion within your workplace. Indeed, the 2016 census data shows that the percentage drop in people identifying as Catholic was mirrored by an increase in people stating they had no religion at all. There are no specific legal provisions in Ireland relating to dress code, but if you don’t want employees to wear overtly religious clothing or jewellery, there would need to be a business-related reason. Otherwise you would leave yourself open to litigation, whereupon you would need to prove that such items being worn would be detrimental to your company (it is worth noting that the 2nd ECJ case mentioned above states that employers ‘could not discriminate due to a customer request that employees not wear a headscarf’). You would also need an airtight non-discriminatory neutrality policy and strict dress code. To implement this with a pre-existing company would require specialist change management, and dialogue with current employees regarding such policy modification.

For expert advice on change management, employment law compliance or any other sensitive issues that may arise in the workplace, call Insight HR on 056 770 1060 or email

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