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