Grimmark v. Sweden and Steen v. Sweden: no right for healthcare professionals to refuse to participate in abortion services, and framing strategies by anti-abortion actors.

This blogpost was written by Niklas Barke, PhD Candidate, Institute for Human Rights, Åbo Akademi University

On the 11th of March, the European Court of Human Rights (the Court) issued its decisions in Grimmark v. Sweden and Steen v. Sweden, two cases casting light on the issue of refusal by healthcare professionals to participate in abortion procedures. The Court in these fairly straight-forward decisions rejected the Applicants’ complaints as manifestly ill-founded. Rather, the Court found the Swedish authorities’ decision to not employ midwives who refused to participate in abortion procedures complied with Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights (the Convention). These two cases are ground-breaking in that this is the first time that the Court decides on the issue of a purported right to refuse to carry out work duties in relation to abortion. Earlier cases relating to so-called conscientious objection have either related to other substantive issues, or been considered from the opposite perspective, that is, in relation to complaints that such refusal has impeded the possibilities to access legal abortion. Building on landmark cases such as R.R. v. Poland (2011) (blog posts here and here, P. and S. v. Poland (2012) (blog post here), Pichon and Sajous v. France (2001), Regner v. the Czech Republic (2017) (blog post here), Skugar and others v. Russia (2009), and Eweida and others v. the United Kingdom (2013) (blog posts here and here), the cases against Sweden follow the trajectory of previous case-law concerning abortion services, refusal to perform work duties, and the question whether there is a right to hold a certain work position. The Court also rejected the Applicants’ complaints under Articles 10 and 14 of the Convention, respectively. However, the focus of this comment will exclusively be on the decision under Article 9.

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Stuck in the middle with Papageorgiou: Missed or new opportunities?

Effie Fokas is a political scientist and a Senior Research Fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy, Research Associate of the London School of Economics Hellenic Observatory, and member of the Henry Luce/Leadership 100 project on Orthodoxy and Human Rights (Orthodox Christian Studies Center, Fordham University). She was also Principal Investigator of the ERC-funded Grassrootsmobilise Research Programme, which was one of three interveners in the Papageorgiou case.

Introduction

On 31 October 2019, the European Court of Human Rights delivered its judgement on the case of Papageorgiou and Others v. Greece, thus adding to its rich case law to do with religious education. Papageorgiou concerns the claim of Greek parents and students that the Greek mandatory religious education and its exemption process violate their Art.2, Protocol 1 right to education in accordance with their own religious or philosophical convictions. The exemption right was limited only to students who are not Orthodox and who submit a formal ‘solemn declaration’ to this effect to their school. On this basis both families in the case also claim violation of their Article 8 right to respect for private life, their Article 9 right to freedom of religion, and the Article 14 prohibition of discrimination.

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Lachiri v. Belgium: Headscarf ban imposed on a civil party in a courtroom in violation of religious freedom

By Julie Ringelheim, researcher with the FRS-FNRS and Professor at Louvain University.

In Lachiri v. Belgium, decided on 18 September 2018, the European Court of Human Rights held that excluding a woman from the courtroom, who was a civil party to the case, on the ground that she wore an ‘Islamic headscarf’ (hijab) amounted to a breach of religious freedom protected by Article 9 ECHR. This judgment is especially noteworthy in view of the rise of prohibitions on wearing the headscarf, or religious symbols generally, in a number of areas in Belgium and France. So far, applicants contesting this sort of measures have rarely been successful in Strasbourg. On three occasions, however, the Court had found that a prohibition on the wearing of religious symbols or clothing lacked adequate justification: in Ahmet Arslan and others v. Turkey (members of a religious groups sanctioned for touring the streets while wearing the distinctive dress of their group); in Eweida and others v. United Kingdom (a British Airways employee was forbidden from wearing a cross necklace outside her clothes while working); and in Hamidović v. Bosnia Herzegovina (a witness in a criminal trial was summoned to remove the skullcap he wore as a member of the Salafist Muslim community). But with Lachiri, the Court for the first time, finds a violation in a case where the wearing of a headscarf by a Muslim woman was at stake. Importantly, this judgment highlights that there are limits to the margin of appreciation states enjoy when regulating the wearing of religious dress. Yet the judgment includes some ambiguous statements that undermine its potential for clarifying the principles applicable to religious symbols regulations. Continue reading

Skullcap in the Courtroom: A rare case of mandatory accommodation of Islamic religious practice

In Hamidović v Bosnia and Herzegovina (5 December 2017), the Fourth Section of the Court found a violation of articles 9 and 14 ECHR on account of the punishment of a witness for wearing an Islamic skullcap in the courtroom. As almost all claims for accommodation of Islamic religious practice have failed before the Court, this is an important case. The Court reaffirms member states’ wide margin of appreciation in this field, yet this judgment makes clear that such a margin is nevertheless not unlimited. Continue reading

Belkacemi and Oussar v Belgium and Dakir v Belgium: the Court again addresses the full-face veil, but it does not move away from its restrictive approach

By Marcella Ferri, ​Adjunct Professor of International Human Rights Law – ASERI, Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, Milan (Italy), and Adjunct Professor of Institutions of Comparative and European Law – module of European Law – University of Bergamo, Bergamo (Italy)

On 11 July 2017, the European Court of Human Rights delivered two similar judgments in the Belkacemi and Oussar v. Belgium and Dakir v. Belgium cases, both concerning the Belgian burqa ban. On 1 June 2011, the Belgian Chamber of Representatives approved a Law criminalising the wearing in public spaces of clothing which partially or totally covers the face. Before the adoption of this Law, the wearing of full-face veils was prohibited by several municipal bans, imposing administrative fines, which have been kept in place by the national ban.  Continue reading

Osmanoğlu and Kocabaş v. Switzerland: A Swiss perspective

By Fabienne Bretscher, PhD Student at the University of Zurich, Visiting Researcher at the Erasmus School of Law Rotterdam

In a recent judgment, the ECtHR found that the refusal to grant Muslim students exemption from mandatory swimming classes in Swiss public schools did not amount to a violation of the right to freedom of religion guaranteed by Article 9 ECHR. In its decision, the ECtHR emphasised the important role of public schools in the process of social integration into local customs and way of life. After giving an overview of the facts of the case as well as the ECtHR’s judgment, the present post sheds some light on the background of the issue of Muslim students’ participation in mandatory swimming classes in Switzerland and argues that, with its decision, the ECtHR is (again) reinforcing and legitimising intolerance against Muslims. Continue reading

European Court of Justice keeps the door to religious discrimination in the private workplace opened. The European Court of Human Rights could close it.

By Saïla Ouald-Chaib and Valeska David

On 14 March 2017, the European Court of Justice issued two judgments, in the cases of Achbita and Bougnaoui concerning the manifestation of beliefs in the private workplace. From the perspective of inclusion and human rights law, the judgments are very disappointing. They basically legitimize and even provide a recipe for discrimination of employees on the basis of their religious or other convictions. Continue reading

ECJ headscarf series (6): The vicious circle of prejudices against Muslim women

By Saïla Ouald Chaib

The day the opinion of Advocate General Kokott in the case of Achbita v. G4S came out, my phone did not stop ringing. The press wanted to know if this opinion really meant that employers could refuse to hire women wearing a hijab. The fact that even journalists sounded surprised speaks for itself. Friends and organizations called me to know my view as a lawyer about this development in the case-law. “How can this be justified from a human rights perspective?” “What can we do to stop this?” And also: “how will I ever find a job if even a European Court backs this kind of discrimination?” These are only a few of the questions I received.

There are many aspects of these opinions that I would like to discuss. However, in light of the previous blog posts in this series, in which a technical legal analysis has already been undertaken from different angles, I will, within the limits of a short post, focus on one particular aspect, namely the perspective of the applicants and with them that of many other Muslim women, in particular in Belgium where the facts of the case of Achbita took place and where our Human Rights Centre is also based. Indeed, in complement to a strictly legal debate, it is important to understand the situation on the ground. This post should therefore be read as a companion piece to the previous post in this series written by Eva Brems, in which she gave an overview of the limiting regulations affecting Muslim women in Belgium.

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ECJ headscarf series (5): The Field in which Achbita will Land – A Brief Sketch of Headscarf Persecution in Belgium

By Eva Brems

What is at Stake? The Hijab Wearer as an Outlaw

The corporate anti-headscarf policy that is challenged in the Achbita case has to be situated in the context of a country that has seen headscarf bans expand like an oil stain from one sector to the next. This results in a situation which can, without exaggeration, be termed ‘headscarf persecution’. Bans that affect mainly the Muslim headscarf are popping up in all sorts of environments, to the effect that the headscarf itself is de-normalized and is almost automatically problematized. In any context whatsoever, a real risk exists that someone will question whether the headscarf can be allowed, and a real risk exists that the answer to such a question will be negative. As a result, Muslim women who wear a headscarf in Belgium gradually become outlaws.

Belgian courts do not necessarily protect against headscarf-based discrimination, and when they do, their judgments have more than once remained without implementation. The stakes of Achbita for hijab wearers in Belgium are clear: can the expansion of the oil stain be stopped or not? Is there or is there not a limit to the activities or places from which headscarf wearers can be excluded, and to the grounds that can be invoked in support of such exclusion?

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ECJ headscarf series (4): The dark side of neutrality

By Emmanuelle Bribosia[1] and Isabelle Rorive[2], Université libre de Bruxelles

The Achbita and the Bougnaoui cases give a first opportunity to the European Court of Justice to address religious discrimination. Since the adoption of the anti-discrimination directives after the Amsterdam treaty, the Court ruled on a significant number of cases, mostly on discrimination based on age or gender, but also on sexual orientation, disability, race and ethnicity. Religion was not in the picture so far. As if national courts kept the issue for themselves, apart for a few cases making their way to the European Court of Human Rights.

A first opportunity that resembles a poisoned gift. Two high-profile cases, brought by the Supreme Courts of the judiciary (Cour de cassation) in Belgium and in France, which fall in ‘the Islamic veil conundrum’ that started in the late 1980s in both countries. Two countries where the principle of neutrality (or laïcité) is increasingly brandished like a flag with uncertain colours by strange bedfellows and not only as a key organizing principle of a democratic State attached to the Rule of law. Two countries severely hit by terrorist attacks made in the name of Islam and where social and political tensions are sour. And two Advocates General who have different views on some fundamental legal concepts of anti-discrimination law.

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ECJ headscarf series (3): The Everyday Troubles of Pluralism

By Matthias Mahlmann, University of Zürich

Differences and Common Ground

This is legal deliberation with an edge: the two Opinions of Advocate General Kokott in the case of Achbita (C-157/15) and of Advocate General Sharpston in the case of Bougnaoui (C-188/15) come to opposing results though dealing with cases that are, in many respects, very similar.

Whereas Advocate General Kokott regards a company rule that prohibits the wearing of any religious symbol or a symbol associated with some form of belief as a genuine determining occupational requirement that serves a legitimate aim and is proportionate, Advocate General Sharpston argues that there is no such justification.

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ECJ headscarf series (2): the role of choice; and the margin of appreciation

By Lucy Vickers, Oxford Brookes University

In this post, I focus on two issues of note regarding the divergent reasoning of the Advocates General. The first is the question of whether or not religion is immutable, and whether the answer to that question is helpful in determining the extent to which religion should be protected at work. The second is the use of ‘margin of appreciation’ reasoning, drawn from human rights case law on freedom of religion and belief, in the context of CJEU equality law.

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Headscarves in Luxembourg – A blog series on the contrasting Opinions of AG Kokott and AG Sharpston

By Eva Brems

The Kokott-Sharpston Standoff at the Threshold to the Summer of Shame

In France and Belgium, the summer of 2016 will be remembered as the summer of the burkini debates. Numerous French municipalities banned Islamic swimgear that covers the body, and in Belgium, majority politicians called for a similar ‘burkini’ ban. The world watched with disbelief as French police chased Muslim women wearing body-covering swimwear from public beaches, or even forced them to undress in public. After the Council of State suspended such a measure in one municipality, the French Prime Minister did not hesitate to publicly criticise the highest administrative court. For those committed to combating minority discrimination, this debate was a turning point, as many proponents of a ban no longer bothered to dress it up as a measure protecting values such as neutrality, the protection of vulnerable people, gender equality or even the notoriously vague concept of ‘living together’. Many of the participants in the burkini debates felt no longer inhibited from publicly saying what it was really about for them: a dislike of Islam, and the desire not to be confronted with it. For Muslim women in both countries, this honesty about the underlying motives is probably all that distinguishes burkini bans from the bans on other types of female Islamic dress (mainly hijab and niqab bans) that they have been confronted with for decades. Yet for many observers who may not have reacted to such previous bans, the French burkini campaign was a step too far. The need for clear limits to admissible restrictions on Islamic dress has thus become keenly felt.

Shortly before the burkini row kicked off, two Advocate Generals of the European Court of Justice issued their opinions in two parallel cases of alleged headscarf discrimination. Both a Belgian and a French court asked the ECJ for guidance, through a preliminary ruling, on whether the dismissal of an employee by a private employer on grounds of her wearing an Islamic headscarf, against the employer’s dress policy, violates EU antidiscrimination law. The Opinions of AG Kokott in the Achbita case and of AG Sharpston in the Bougnaoui case reach opposite conclusions: for Kokott, there is no discrimination, for Sharpston there is. Underlying the difference in outcomes are numerous important differences in the interpretation of the Employment Equality Directive. These differences of interpretation, in turn, betray widely divergent views on the protection of the fundamental rights of minorities in Europe.

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Grand Chamber Judgment in Izzettin Doğan and Others v. Turkey: More Than a Typical Religious Discrimination Case

This guest post was written by Dr. Mine Yildirim (*)

On 26 April 2016, the Grand Chamber held, by 12 votes to 5, that there had been a violation of Article 9 ECHR, and, by 16 votes to 1, that there had been a violation of Article 14 taken in conjunction with Article 9 ECHR in the case of Izzettin Doğan and Others v. Turkey.

Relying on Article 9, taken alone and in conjunction with Article 14, the applicants complained that their right to manifest their religion had not been adequately protected in domestic law. It is important to note that their complaints are based both on their claims for public religious services and recognition of their cemevis (Alevi places of worship) as places of worship. They complained of the refusal of their requests seeking, among others, to obtain for the Alevi faith followers the same religious public service provided exclusively to the majority of citizens, who adhere to the Sunni branch of Islam. The applicants maintained that this refusal implied an assessment of their faith on the part of the national authorities, in breach of the State’s duty of neutrality and impartiality with regard to religious beliefs. They also contended that their request for the recognition of cemevis was refused. They further alleged that they had been the victims of discrimination on grounds of their religion, as they had received less favorable treatment than followers of the Sunni branch of Islam in a comparable situation, without any objective and reasonable justification.
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Face veils in Strasbourg (bis): the Belgian cases

By Eva Brems

In the Grand Chamber judgment of SAS v France (2014) the European Court of Human Rights held that France’s ban on face covering in public could be justified under article 9 ECHR as a proportionate measure for the aim of guaranteeing ‘le vivre ensemble’ (living together). Given the storm of protest that this judgment raised among human rights scholars and activists, it may be of interest to note that the second section of the Court recently communicated two applications against the Belgian face covering ban. Indeed, about one year after France adopted its ban, Belgium did the same. Belgium and France are the only two countries that have adopted a general ban on face covering in public (local or regional bans exist in the Netherlands, Spain, Italy and Switzerland). In Belgium, the nationwide ban was preceded by municipal bans, that continue to be enforced alongside the criminal ban.

While it is unlikely that the Court would overrule a recent and unanimous Grand Chamber judgment, it is not excluded that it might take this opportunity to explain and possibly nuance some of the statements it made in SAS.

The Human Rights Centre of Ghent University submitted a third party intervention in one of the Belgian cases.

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Ebrahimian v France: headscarf ban upheld for entire public sector

By Eva Brems

On 26 November, the Court added a new chapter to its ‘headscarf’ jurisprudence, upholding the non-renewal of a contract in a public hospital on the ground of the applicant’s refusal to take off her headscarf.

The case in brief

15 years ago, in December 2000, the applicant, who had been working for 15 months with a temporary contract as a social assistant in the psychiatric wing of a public hospital in the Paris area, was informed that her contract would not be renewed. This was a disciplinary measure as a result of her refusing to stop wearing an Islamic headscarf, which had given rise to complaints from both patients and colleagues. Continue reading

New ECSR decision on conscience-based refusals protects women’s right to access abortion

Guest post by Katrine Thomasen, Legal Adviser for Europe, Center for Reproductive Rights. The Center for Reproductive Rights together with the Swedish Association for Sexuality Education (RFSU) submitted joint observations to the ECSR regarding the complaint.

The European Committee of Social Rights (Committee) recently rejected a complaint filed by the Federation of Catholic Families in Europe (FAFCE) against Sweden that claimed health professionals are entitled to deny women legal abortion services based on claims of personal conscience. In dismissing each one of FAFCE’s claims, the Committee reaffirmed women’s right to access reproductive health services and upheld Sweden’s robust legal and policy framework that protects these rights. The decision reinforces previous jurisprudence from the European Court of Human Rights that women’s access to reproductive health care may not be jeopardized by health care professionals’ personal refusals to provide relevant services.

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Karaahmed v. Bulgaria: The (In)Visible Racial and Religious Motivation of Violence

By Lourdes Peroni

Karaahmed v. Bulgaria, a case recently decided at Strasbourg, concerned incidents arising from a demonstration by followers of “Ataka,” a political party known for its views against Islam and its adherents. The place of the demonstration: in front of the Banya Bashi Mosque in Sofia. The time: during Friday prayers. The manner: carrying flags featuring slogans such as “Let’s get Bulgaria back;” shouting insults at the worshippers such as “Turkish stooges”, “filthy terrorists,” “scum” and “Your feet stink! That is why you wash them!;” pelting them with eggs and stones; cutting a Turkish fez with a pocket knife while saying “Can you hear me? We shall now show you what will happen to each one of you!” and setting fire to prayer rugs.

The Court declared the Article 3 complaint, either alone or in conjunction with Article 14, inadmissible but found a violation of Article 9. In this post, I offer some preliminary thoughts on the inability of the Article 9 analysis to make visible what the events were really about at their heart.

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Religious signs in public schools: Belgian Council of State shows judicial bravery

Co-authored by Yousra Benfquih* and Saïla Ouald Chaib**

As in many other countries in Europe, the wearing of religious signs has been the topic of heated debate in Belgium. This has been the case for public servants, teachers, employees in private firms and the wearing of religious signs by pupils in school. It is the latter issue that was the subject of two recent judgments of the Belgian Council of State (Conseil d’Etat, Belgium’s highest administrative court), judgments that might prove to mark a watershed in the Belgian discourse on headscarf bans, freedom of religion and the right to education of pupils. (The judgments are in Dutch and can be found here and here)[1] The judgments are furthermore interesting because of their inclusive comprehension of neutrality through systematic reference to the case law of the European Court of Human Rights. This post will start by briefly shedding light on the structure of the Belgian education system and the implementation of a ban on religious signs in Flanders. We will subsequently highlight the crucial parts of the judgments of the Council of State (hereafter ‘the Council’) and conclude with some reflections.

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Mansur Yalçın v. Turkey: religious education and the (easy) way out

This guest post was written by Yousra Benfquih, FWO aspirant, PhD Fellow Research Foundation Flanders at the University of Antwerp.

In the case of Mansur Yalçın v. Turkey, 14 Turkish nationals living in Istanbul who are adherents of the Alevi faith, complained before the Court that the way in which the religion and ethics class – a compulsory subject in primary and secondary public education under article 24 of the Turkish Constitution – was taught, violated Article 2 of Protocol No. 1. In this connection, they moreover put forward a violation of Articles 9 and 14 of the Convention. Continue reading

S.A.S. v. France as a problematic precedent

As this blog already features an excellent post on SAS v France, this is a brief contribution, with a specific focus, namely SAS v France as a problematic precedent beyond the issue of the face veil and even beyond religious freedom cases. I shall focus on two problematic aspects of the judgment: its acceptance of the promotion of ‘living together’ as a legitimate ground for the restriction of fundamental rights, coupled with a wide margin of appreciation; and the way it assesses the seriousness of the interference. Continue reading

S.A.S. v. France: Missed Opportunity to Do Full Justice to Women Wearing a Face Veil

By Saïla Ouald Chaib and Lourdes Peroni

This week, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights published its long-expected judgment in S.A.S. v. France. The case concerns a ban on the wearing of face veils in the public space. Although the outcome of such highly debated cases is always unpredictable, we hoped that the Court would take this opportunity to bring procedural and substantive justice to the women wearing a face veil in Europe.[1] Alas, the Court disappointingly decided the case by granting a wide margin of appreciation to France and by consequently not finding a violation of any of the ECHR provisions invoked, in particular freedom of religion, the right to private life and non-discrimination. At the same time, however, the judgment contains some positive aspects, namely respect for several requirements of what is known as “procedural justice” and departure from previous case law portraying Muslim women as oppressed. In this post, we share our first impressions on what we think are some positive and negative aspects of the Court’s reasoning. Continue reading

Fernández Martínez v. Spain: The Grand Chamber Putting the Brakes on the ‘Ministerial Exception’ for Europe?

Recently, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights delivered its eagerly awaited judgment in Fernández Martínez v. Spain. The case concerned the refusal to renew the contract of a teacher of Catholic religion and ethics in a public secondary school, because he had allegedly caused a “scandal” when his situation of ‘married priest’ and his membership of the Movement for Optional Celibacy of priests became public knowledge. By a narrow 9-8 split decision, the Grand Chamber ruled that the applicant’s right to private life had not been violated.

Before the judgment came out, I was fairly confident that it would affirm what I have termed the ‘ministerial exception for Europe’ in an earlier post. Now that the judgment is out, I am forced to come to the opposite conclusion. Instead of confirming the reasoning of the Third Section, the Grand Chamber in Fernández Martínez appears to hark back to the reasoning in earlier cases, such as Obst v. Germany and Schüth v. Germany.

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A missed opportunity: how the Court’s judgment is commendable for seeking to protect religious minorities but nevertheless wide of the mark

This guest post was written by Lieselot Verdonck. Lieselot is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Human Rights Centre, Faculty of Law of Ghent University. More information on the author can be found here.

The relationship between State and Church has always drawn much interest. It constitutes an inherently sensitive and political issue, which touches upon one of the foundations of a democratic society and concerns any member of that society, whether religious, atheist or agnostic. Accordingly, the European Court of Human Rights inevitably has to face cases concerning the foundational issue of Church-State relations, such as in Magyar Keresztény Mennonita Egyház & Others v. Hungary. The Court’s decision in this case is, however, remarkable for its general and far-reaching statements that leave not only scholars but also governments guessing about their future application. Continue reading

In the Footsteps of Jakóbski v. Poland but Adding Obstacles to the Road: Vartic v. Romania

When it comes to the accommodation of religious dietary requirements of detainees, it is clear that the European Court of Human Rights is adopting an inclusive approach. The case of Jakóbski v. Poland (2010) was considered a landmark case in this sense and the recent case of Vartic v. Romania proves that this assumption was correct. What distinguishes Vartic from Jakobski is the fact that the Court was confronted with the significant disadvantage criterion, which was introduced by protocol 14.

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S.A.S. v. France: A short summary of an interesting hearing

On Wednesday, our research team attended the Grand Chamber hearing at the European Court of Human Rights in the case of S.A.S. v. France, in which we submitted a third party intervention on behalf of the Ghent University Human Rights Centre. The case concerns the French law banning the face veil, a highly debated piece of legislation, which was also obvious from the amount of international press covering the hearing. I will first briefly discuss the content of our third-party intervention and then turn to a summary of the hearing which left a positive impression on us.

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Mann Singh wins turban case in Geneva after losing in Strasbourg

The name Mann Singh will probably ring a bell with those who are familiar with the case law of the European Court of Human Rights. In Mann Singh v. France (ECHR, 13/11/2008/, no 4479/07), the Strasbourg Court was confronted with the question whether the French obligation to appear bareheaded on photographs on identity documents was compatible with the rights protected by the European Convention on Human Rights. In the case discussed in this post, the same applicant is involved, however, this time he made a claim concerning the prohibition to wear a turban on the photograph on his passport (instead of his driver’s license) and more importantly, he brought his claim in front of the UN Human Rights Committee (hereafter HRC). The same applicant going with almost the same claim to different human rights bodies is quite an exceptional situation. Continue reading

New Publication: “Doing Minority Justice Through Procedural Fairness: Face Veil Bans in Europe”

Eva Brems and I are happy to announce the publication of our article entitled “Doing Minority Justice Through Procedural Fairness: Face Veil Bans in Europe” in the Journal of Muslims in Europe. In this article we examine the bans on face veils (better known as ‘Burqa bans’) from a procedural justice perspective. This piece also gave us an excellent opportunity to reflect on how the European Court of Human Rights might deal with this matter of face veil bans in a procedurally just way.[1] One case in which the Court will have to face the issue of a face veil ban is in the case of S.A.S. v. France. The Human Rights Centre of Ghent University submitted a third party intervention in this case last year, in which we  advocated inter alia for a procedural justice approach.

The full reference of the article is Saïla Ouald Chaib and Eva Brems, “Doing Minority Justice Through Procedural Fairness: Face Veil Bans in Europe”, Journal of Muslims in Europe 2 (2013), 1-26. Please find the abstract bellow.

The French and Belgian bans on face veils in public places have been subjected to strong substantive human rights critiques. This article takes a complementary approach, examining the bans from the perspective of procedural fairness.
Indeed, the French and Belgian bans are extreme examples of legislative
processes taking place above the heads of the people concerned, neglecting
the ban’s possible human rights impact. After exploring what the social
psychology notion of procedural fairness entails for the judiciary and the
legislator, especially in a multicultural context, this article details procedural fairness shortcomings with respect to the face veil ban in France and Belgium. Subsequently, the article sets out how the European Court of Human Rights might compensate for these shortcomings.


[1] For a general exploration of the concept of procedural justice in the context of the jurisprudence of the ECtHR, see also the recent publication by Eva Brems and Laurens Lavrysen: https://strasbourgobservers.com/2013/02/12/procedural-justice-in-human-rights-adjudication-the-european-court-of-human-rights/

“Very Weighty Reasons” for Religion: Vojnity v. Hungary

It looks like freedom-of-religion season has arrived in Strasbourg. After leaving aside the “freedom to resign” doctrine in Eweida, the Court has just made another move towards greater recognition of the importance of freedom of religion. In Vojnity v. Hungary, the Court clearly recognizes religion as a “suspect” ground of differentiation. As a result – and just like distinctions based on race, sex and sexual orientation – states must give “very weighty reasons” if they wish to justify differences based on religion. In less than a month, the Court has thus put freedom of religion and non-discrimination on the basis of religion on firmer grounds in Strasbourg.

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Freedom of Religion in Public Schools: Strasbourg Court v. UN Human Rights Committee

In a recent decision, the Human Rights Committee of the UN found a violation of the right to freedom of religion in a case concerning the famous and highly debated French law of 2004 that prohibits the wearing of religious garment in public schools. Accordingly the UN Committee called upon France to revisit its legislation. This UN Committee’s decision is remarkable, especially since the European Court of Human Rights was also confronted with the same question —whether expulsing pupils from school because of their wearing of religious garment is violating fundamental rights such as the freedom of religion and the prohibition of discrimination—, but contrary to the UN jurisdiction, the ECtHR declared the claims manifestly ill-founded. This recent development is also relevant for the Belgian context, where the debate on headscarves in public schools has been reopened after the Flemish board of public schools announced two weeks ago that they will implement a general ban on religious “signs” for pupils and members of personnel. In this post, I will first summarize the UN decision and subsequently compare it to the Strasbourg case law.

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Eweida, Part II: The Margin of Appreciation Defeats and Silences All

In this second post on Eweida and Others v. the United Kingdom, I deal with the conflict between freedom of religion (or the prohibition of indirect discrimination on the basis of religion, if you so wish) and the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation (or an employer’s interest in upholding equality and diversity policies, if you so wish) in the cases of Ms. Ladele and Mr. McFarlane.

There were many reasons to be excited about an ECtHR ruling in the cases of Ladele and McFarlane. Many reasons to find both cases intriguing and challenging. And as many reasons to be disappointed with the astonishingly brief and extremely deferential reasoning the Court eventually delivered. In this post, I aim to lay bare some of the main shortcomings of the Court’s reasoning, without necessarily challenging the outcome of the case.  

I will focus almost exclusively on Ms. Ladele’s case. The case of Mr. McFarlane will largely be left aside, both for reasons of space and because his case is less challenging than Ms. Ladele’s case.

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Eweida and Others v. the United Kingdom (Part I): Taking Freedom of Religion More Seriously

Eweida and Others v. the United Kingdom is probably one of the most awaited freedom of religion judgments of recent times. Twelve third parties intervened in the case. The judgment in fact covers four big cases brought by Christian applicants, complaining that they had suffered religious discrimination at work. This week and next week, the Strasbourg Observers will give the judgment the attention it deserves. In this post, I will stick to the general Article 9 principles of the judgment and to their application to the cases of Ms. Eweida and Ms. Chaplin. Next week, we will focus on McFarlane and Ladele.

The Court’s Article 9 reasoning is praiseworthy for several reasons. First, the Court offers a clear analysis of what counts as “manifestation of religion or belief.” Then, the Court refuses to quickly dismiss the freedom of religion complaints at the interference stage, leaving behind the freedom to resign doctrine. Moreover, in Eweida and Chaplin, the Court shows a strong concern for what is at stake for applicants manifesting their religion at work in the balancing stage. In essence, all this shows that the Court takes freedom of religion more seriously.

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Belgian Constitutional Court says Ban on Face Coverings does not violate Human Rights

Last week the Belgian Constitutional Court rejected a claim to annul the ban on face coverings, better known as ‘burqa ban’.  This ban prohibits the wearing of clothing that covers the face, or a large part of it, in the public space.  The Constitutional Court (hereinafter the “CC”) concluded that the ban does not violate fundamental rights such as the right to freedom of religion, the right to freedom of expression and the right to private life, provided that the ban is not interpreted in such a way that it also covers places of worship. Continue reading

Gender equality and religious freedom in politics; Dutch SGP case declared inadmissible

The ECtHR has brought a turbulent Dutch legal saga to a close. In the highly interesting Staatkundig Gereformeerde Partij v. the Netherlands, the Court has declared the complaint by the Dutch political party ‘SGP’ inadmissible. The SGP is, in the words of the Court, “a confessional political party firmly rooted in historical Dutch Reformed Protestantism” (par. 4). The party does not allow women to stand for election, as it believes that God teaches that men and women have different roles in life. It believes that “man is the head of the woman” and “participation of women in both representative and administrative political organs” is “incompatible with woman’s calling” (par. 9). After a prolonged debate and legal struggle in the domestic courts, the Dutch Supreme Court ruled that, on the ground of Article 7 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (‘CEDAW’), the State is obliged to ensure that political parties allow women to exercise their right to stand for election. The SGP complained to the Strasbourg Court that this ruling of the Supreme Court infringed Articles 9 (right to freedom of religion), Article 10 (right to freedom of expression) and Article 11 (right to assembly) of the ECHR.

Frankly, what I expected to find was a terse decision, basically referring to the State’s margin of appreciation. I was wrong. The reasoning is brief, but includes three steps that combine to make this a memorable ruling. I will discuss these steps below. By the way, this case has provoked a lot of controversy in the Netherlands over the past years (most of it is in Dutch, but see this article in the Human Rights Quarterly). With this post, I cannot do justice to the whole debate; I just aim to give you my first impressions of the decision. Continue reading

Fernández Martínez v. Spain : Towards a ‘Ministerial Exception’ for Europe?

In its recent judgment in Fernández Martínez v. Spain, the European Court of Human Rights appears to have abandoned its tried and tested formula of ad hoc balancing between the collective dimension of freedom of religion and individual human rights, established in Obst v. Germany, Schüth v. Germany and Siebenhaar v. Germany. In Fernández Martínez,the Court accepted the Spanish courts’ categorical balancing to the benefit of church autonomy instead, thereby echoing the opinion of the United States Supreme Court on the ‘ministerial exception’ in Hosanna-Tabor.

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Ghent seminar on empirical face veil research (May 9)

The European Court of Human Rights has recently communicated the case of S.A.S. v. France, concerning a French woman challenging the French ban on face coverings. She alleges a violation of several Convention rights amongst which her freedom of religion, her right to private life and her right not to be discriminated against. This case will surely be intensively followed throughout Europe, as the debate on the so-called burqa bans is raging. Therefore, we thought that readers of this blog might be interested to know that we (the Human Rights Centre of Ghent University) are organizing a seminar on empirical research on face veils. Continue reading

Francesco Sessa v. Italy: A Dilemma Majority Religion Members Will Probably Not Face

This post was co-authored by Saïla Ouald Chaib and Lourdes Peroni

This week, in a 4-3 judgment, the Court ruled against a violation of the freedom of religion of Mr. Sessa, a lawyer and member of the Jewish faith, unable to attend a court hearing scheduled on Yom Kippur. The case is Francesco Sessa v. Italy. After two recent steps forward in freedom of religion cases (see here and here), the Court with this case takes several steps back. Fortunately, the dissenting opinion leaves the door open for future reasonable accommodation cases.

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Gatis Kovalkovs v. Latvia: The Strasbourg Court keeps the door to reasonable accommodation open

In an earlier post, Lourdes and I were wondering whether the Court was opening the door to the concept of reasonable accommodation in freedom of religion cases with the judgment of Jakόbski v. Poland. With the recent case of Gatis Kovalkovs v. Latvia – well-hidden in the archives of inadmissibility decisions – it can be concluded that, at least, even though the door to reasonable accommodation might not be wide open yet, the Court is moving in that direction. In Gatis Kovalkovs v. Latvia, a detainee who wants to practice his religion in prison once more confronts the Court with a reasonable-accommodation type of claim.

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Ranjit Singh v. France: The UN Committee asks the questions the Strasbourg Court didn’t ask in turban case

In January this year the organization United Sikhs held a press conference about the decision in the case Ranjit Singh v. France brought by them before the UN Human Rights Committee. This decision about the wearing of a Sikh turban on an identity document is more than interesting from the perspective of Strasbourg jurisprudence since the European Court of Human Rights dealt with exactly the same issue concerning the same country some years ago in the case of Mann Singh v. France. Yet, both decisions are completely opposite to each other. In the case of Ranjit Singh v. France the UN Human Rights Committee concluded to a violation of the freedom of religion of the applicant, whereas the European Court of Human Rights declared the similar case of Mann Singh v. France manifestly ill-founded and thus inadmissible.

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Recognizing the right to conscientious objection – Part I – correcting a mistake

In the Grand Chamber judgment in the case of Bayatyan v. Armenia the Court recognized a right to conscientious objection under Article 9. The first step in doing so was to correct a mistake started by the European Commission of Human Rights (Commission) regarding the interpretation of Article 9 in conjunction with Article 4. Continue reading

Jehovah’s Witnesses and Freedom of Religion in France

Last week, the European Court ruled against France in a case concerning a tax demand claimed from the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The amount: over 57.5 million Euros. In Association Les Témoins de Jéhovah c. France, the Court focuses on the impact of the taxation on the association’s main source of funding – and on its subsequent ability to assure its members the free exercise of religion – as well as on the lack of precision of the law under which the association was taxed. In the background of the case, there are however various elements worth keeping in mind if one wants to get a fuller sense of the case and the issues ultimately at stake.   Continue reading

Belgium votes ‘burqa’ ban

Today, the Belgian Chamber of Representatives voted a ‘burqa ban’. It did the same thing a year ago, but the unexpected fall of the government prevented the law from entering into force then, as the bill had been evoked by the Senate. This time, it is for real.

The text introduces in the criminal code a new provision, article 563bis, creating a new offence:

“Will be punished with a fine of 15 to 25 Euro and/or detention of 1 to 7 days, those who, except for contrary legal provisions, are present in places that are accessible to the public with their faces completely or partially covered or hidden, such as not to be recognizable.”

Exceptions are added for workplace regulations and police regulations regarding festivities.

The fines in the criminal code currently have to be multiplied by a factor that is currently 5,5, hence the maximum fine is 137,5 Euro.

I am a member of the Belgian Chamber of Representatives and the only Deputy (out of 150)  to vote against the bill (2 Deputies abstained).

While for all government-initiated bills the advice of the legislative section of the Council of State (regarding amongst others the conformity with the Constitution and international law) is mandatory, this is optional for bills tabled by members of parliament; the request for a referral to the Council of State was rejected by all but one parliamentary group (note: in France, the Council of State issued a very critical advice on the ‘burqa ban’)

Similarly, a request by Amnesty International and two women’s rights organizations to organize hearings with civil society, obtained the support of only one group.

It is to be expected that the law will be challenged before Belgium’s Constitutional Court.

For an analysis of the ban from an ECHR perspective, see the previous post “Would a Niqab and Burqa ban pass the Strasbourg test?” written by my research team members Lourdes, Stijn and Saïla.

Lautsi v. Italy: Possible Implications for Minority Religious Symbols

What are the implications of the recent landmark judgment in Lautsi for minority religious symbols in state school classrooms? At first sight, the Court seems to adopt a more open approach towards the presence of religious symbols in the school environment. On closer examination, however, this may not necessarily be the case. This post briefly speculates on the Court’s answers in two post-Lautsi imaginary scenarios: What would happen in a case filed by a state school teacher wearing a headscarf against a Member State that bans it? What might be the Court’s response to a parent’s complaint against a Member State that allows teachers to wear the headscarf in state schools? Continue reading

Lautsi v. Italy: the Argument from Neutrality

Lautsi v. Italy was destined to achieve legendary status in the ECtHR’s case law. In fact, it became the stuff of legends long before the Grand Chamber’s judgment came out. Rarely has a judgment of a supranational court put such a spell on people. Rarely has it inspired such passionate comments and speculation even before it was released. Rarely have so many people looked forward to a judgment with such anxious anticipation. But why? What is it about the issues involved in this case that causes it to speak so strongly to the hearts and minds of so many? It is a question I have been asking myself for a while now, while reflecting on the tension between freedom of and freedom from religion in the Court’s case law. And the question is haunting me now more than ever, having read the Lautsi judgment and the comments in the blogosphere thereon and preparing a post of my own. I have not been able to come up with a satisfactory answer to the question. At least not satisfactory to a legal mind. My personal preoccupation with Lautsi seems to stem from a strong conviction that neutrality requires that the state should not hang crucifixes on the walls in public schools. I will attempt to explain my opinion in this post. But I will also explain why this is perhaps not an issue to be decided by a human rights court.

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Freedom of religion in conflict: Siebenhaar v. Germany

With the case of Siebenhaar v. Germany, the European Court of Human Rights is confronted for the third time in less than half a year with a case against Germany where one of the concerned parties is a church in the capacity of employer. The two previous cases are Obst v. Germany and Shüth v. Germany. All three cases concern a dispute resulting from the dismissal of an employee working for a church. Obst and Shüth were dismissed by the Mormon Church and the Catholic Church, respectively, for having external marital relationships. In the case of Siebenhaar, the applicant was dismissed because of her membership to and engagement in a religious group different from her employer’s. Continue reading

Local ‘burqa ban’ violates human rights (according to Belgian judge)

Although Belgium does not have a general ban on face covering veils like France, a lot of cities do already ban it in practice. This happens through local regulations that sometimes prohibit face-hiding masks, make-up or the like in the public space. An exception to this rule is accorded for the periods of the festivities of carnival.

The municipality of Etterbeek, like most of the municipalities of Brussels, bans the face veil under this “carnival regulation”. In 2009 a Muslim woman wearing a niqab (a veil that leaves only the eyes uncovered) was stopped twice by the police while bringing her children to school. The authorities claimed that a hidden face in the public space could lead to security problems since the identification of a person can only happen via an individual control. The first time the applicant was fined 35 euro and the second time 200 euro, an amount which she refused to pay. She issued proceedings against the municipality of Etterbeek alleging a violation of her right to freedom of religion, especially her freedom to manifest her religion. The applicant won her case in front of a Belgian lower court (Tribunal de Police de Bruxelles, 26 January 2011) which found a violation of article 9 of the ECHR. The municipality of Etterbeek is appealing against the judgment. Continue reading

Jakόbski v. Poland: Is the Court opening the door to reasonable accommodation?

By Saïla Ouald-Chaib and Lourdes Peroni

In a previous post, I said I would give the European Court of Human Rights a standing ovation the day it adopted a more open stance in freedom of religion cases. The time has come for such ovation. And the opportunity has been provided by what may well be a landmark decision: Jakόbski v. Poland. In this post, Lourdes and I discuss the causes for celebration.

Mr. Jakόbski, currently detained in a Polish prison, submits that he is a Buddhist. This is the reason why on several occasions he asked to be served meat-free meals to be able to follow the religious dietary rules required by Mahayana Buddhism.  The prison authorities provided him with a ‘PK diet’ – which is a diet that contains no pork – but did not provide him with a complete meat-free diet. The applicant complained about a violation of his freedom of religion. Continue reading

Headscarf Ban in Belgian Restaurant Found Discriminatory

This guest post has been written by Katayoun Alidadi who is a PhD Candidate at the KULeuven (Institute for Migration Law & Legal Anthropology) and a project researcher in the European FP7 Project Religare on ‘Religious Diversity and Secular Models in Europe’ (www.religareproject.eu)

Recently, a Belgian judge in the small Walloon city of Huy (between Namur and Liège) found the total ban on all headgear for restaurant clientele to be discriminatory towards a number of protected categories of individuals. The restaurant had posted a sign at the entrance of the restaurant annex bowling alley stating that ‘as a matter of courtesy towards our clientele all headgear is prohibited in our establishment. We reserve the right to refuse entry.’ The court ordered the sign to be removed. Continue reading