In the recent case of IR v. JQ, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has held that the dismissal of a Catholic employee because he did not act in accordance with the religious ethos of his employer could constitute unlawful discrimination.
The CJEU was asked by the Federal German Court to consider whether an employer whose ethos is based on religion or belief can impose an obligation on its employees to behave with loyalty towards that religious ethos. The CJEU ruled that an employer can only do so where the religion or belief is a genuine, legitimate and justified occupational requirement, in accordance with Article 4(2) of the EU Equal Treatment Framework Directive (No.2000/78) (the EU Equal Treatment Directive).
JQ, a Roman Catholic, was employed as the Head of Internal Medicine in a Catholic hospital run by IR, a charitable company subject to the supervision of the Archbishop of Cologne. JQ had previously married in a Roman Catholic ceremony but later divorced his first wife. He subsequently remarried in a civil ceremony without his first marriage being annulled.
When IR became aware that JQ had remarried, he was dismissed on the ground that he had breached a contractual duty to be loyal to the ethos of the Catholic Church, which considers religious marriage to be sacred and indissoluble by divorce. IR claimed that it was entitled to require JQ, as a Catholic doctor in a managerial position, to follow the Catholic Church's teaching on marriage.
JQ argued that his dismissal amounted to unlawful discrimination, because an employee of Protestant faith or no faith would not have been dismissed for remarrying. JQ, as a Catholic, was being required to provide greater loyalty to IR's Catholic ethos than non-Catholic employees.
The German Federal Labour Court sought clarification from the CJEU on the correct interpretation of the EU Equal Treatment Directive.
The CJEU held that, where an employee receives less favourable treatment because of his or her religion, there must be a genuine, legitimate and justified occupational requirement for such treatment in the light of the ethos in question, and that the treatment must be proportionate. The CJEU referred the matter back to the German Federal Labour Court to satisfy itself on these issues.
However, the CJEU observed that adherence to the Roman Catholic doctrine of marriage did not appear to be necessary for the promotion of IR's ethos, bearing in mind the importance of the occupational activities performed by JQ in the hospital, namely providing medical advice and care and managing the Internal Medicine Department. Therefore, in the CJEU's view, such adherence did not appear to be a genuine requirement of JQ's occupation. The CJEU found support for its view in the fact that similar positions within the hospital were held by employees who were not Roman Catholic.
This case serves as a useful reminder to employers with a religious ethos that they must avoid applying a blanket occupational requirement of adherence to that ethos on all employees. Rather, employers should be able to justify and evidence the necessity of any such occupational requirement imposed on any particular employees.
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