The controversy surrounding people’s rights to manifest their religion through religious dress at work is never too far from the spotlight of the press. In particular, the issue of wearing a headscarf (khimar), face-veil (niqab) or the head-to-toe garment (jilbab) in schools, hospitals and other public places seems to be a topical issue. The competing rights involved were recently highlighted by Birmingham Metropolitan College’s U-turn on its previous decision to ban face veils along with hoodies and caps, on the grounds of security. 

It can be helpful to use an example to provide context to the issues of religious dress at work. Let’s say you have a receptionist who has recently converted to Islam and who one day turns up in a jilbab. This causes some customers to refuse to deal with the receptionist on the basis that they cannot see her face. As a result, you begin to lose customers. What can you do?

An employee is likely to argue that they are wearing the jilbab as a public manifestation of her religion. However, the right to freedom of religious expression is not absolute. This means there are exceptions to the rule. For example, if you can prove that allowing your employee to wear the jilbab is counter to public safety, public order, health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others, then these could overrule an employee's religious expression right. However, in this case as the employee is a receptionist, none of these exceptions are likely to apply. 

Let’s consider however, a doctor who wears the jilbab – what is the situation then? There is currently no national guidance on the issue. However, Professor Carol Baxter, Head of Equality, Diversity and Human Rights at the NHS has said that all medical professionals should ensure that there are no ‘barriers to effective communication between staff and patients.’  Hospitals could therefore argue that removing the jilbab during working hours is a genuine and proportionate occupational requirement. This has led to some hospitals, such as Bradford Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, introducing a ban on the full face veil which has been in place since 2009.

Religious dress at work is a complex and highly emotive issue. The practical advice is therefore to review each situation on its own facts. Where a compromise cannot be reached, it is best to seek legal advice. You could also try and be proactive and try and prevent the issue by having relevant uniform policies in place. This is something BHW Solicitors can draft for you, to suit your business needs.

Katie Stephenson is a Solicitor in the Employment Department at BHW Solicitors in Leicester. Katie can be contacted on 0116 281 6227.

This article was published in the Leicester Mercury and can also be seen here.

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