ECHR upholds decision to ban veils for public officials

ECHR upholds decision to ban veils for public officials

ECHR upholds decision to ban veils for public officials

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The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled on Nov. 26 that not renewing the contract of a hospital social worker because of her refusal to stop wearing the Muslim veil when discharging her duty in France was not a breach of the European Convention of Human Rights with regards to the right to freedom of religion.

In the case of Ebrahimian v. France, the ECHR held, unanimously, that there had been no violation of Article 9, the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as wearing the Muslim veil had been considered by the authorities as an ostentatious manifestation of religion that was incompatible with the requirement of neutrality incumbent on public officials in discharging their functions.

The applicant, Christiane Ebrahimian, who is a French national born in 1951 and lives in Paris, did not have her contract renewed in December 2000 as a social worker in the psychiatric department of Nanterre Hospital and Social Care Centre (“HSCC”), a public health establishment administered by the City of Paris, on account of her refusal to remove her headgear following complaints from patients.

Ebrahimian had had a fixed-term contract with the public hospital from Oct. 1, 1999 to Dec. 31, 2000. 

While announcing the non-renewal of her contract, the hospital’s human resources branch sent Ebrahimian a written reminder of the Conseil d’État’s opinion of May 3, 2000, that while the freedom of conscience of public officials was guaranteed, the principle of the secular character of the state prevented them from enjoying the right to manifest their religious beliefs while discharging their functions; accordingly, wearing a visible symbol of religious affiliation constituted a breach of a public official’s duties.

After French courts upheld the hospital’s decision, Ebrahimian complained that the decision not to renew her contract as a social worker was in breach of her right to freedom to manifest her religion. 

The ECHR, in response, found that the national authorities had not exceeded their margin of appreciation in finding that there was no possibility of reconciling Ebrahimian’s religious convictions with the obligation to refrain from manifesting them, and in deciding to give precedence to the requirement of neutrality and impartiality of the state. 

The necessity of protecting the rights and liberties of others – that is, respect for everyone’s religion – had formed the basis of the decision in question, the ECHR decided.