As discrimination in employment on grounds of religion is regulated by EU law, in the form of Directive 2000/78 (which also bans discrimination on grounds of disability, age or sexual orientation in employment), when the case came before the Bundesarbeitsgericht (Federal Labour Court) it decided to make a reference to the Court of Justice to clarify the interpretation of EU law. The key issue in the reference was whether the scope of the exemption from the duty not to discriminate on grounds of religion or belief granted by German law to religious organisations was compatible with Directive 2000/78.
The issue of exemptions from the prohibition on discrimination on grounds of religion for religious employers is addressed by Article 4(2) of the Directive which states:
‘…. in the case of occupational activities within churches and other public or private organisations the ethos of which is based on religion or belief, a difference of treatment based on a person’s religion or belief shall not constitute discrimination where, by reason of the nature of these activities or of the context in which they are carried out, a person’s religion or belief constitute a genuine, legitimate and justified occupational requirement, having regard to the organisation’s ethos. This difference of treatment shall be implemented taking account of Member States’ constitutional provisions and principles, as well as the general principles of Community law, and should not justify discrimination on another ground.’ (emphasis added).
The relevant German law implementing the directive provided that:
‘….a difference in treatment based on religion or belief shall also be admitted in the case of employment by religious societies, by institutions affiliated therewith, regardless of legal form, or by associations whose purpose is to foster a religion or belief in the community, where a given religion or belief constitutes a justified occupational requirement, having regard to the employer’s own perception, in view of the employer’s right of autonomy or by reason of the nature of its activities.’ (paragraph 9(1) of the Allgemeine Gleichbehandlungsgesetz, emphasis added).
This legislation, has been interpreted in the light of the German constitutional guarantee that states:
‘Religious societies shall regulate and administer their affairs independently within the limits of the law that applies to all. They shall confer their offices without the involvement of central government or local authorities.’ (Grundgesetz Article 140).
This has meant that the consistent approach of the German courts has been that the decision as to whether a particular role within a religious organization needs to be limited to those of a particular faith was for the religious employer to take. The role of the courts has been limited to plausibility review, on the basis of a religion’s self-conception defined by belief.
The national court harboured doubts as to whether the approach of German law in allowing the religious employer to determine for itself, subject only to plausibility review by the courts, whether its beliefs required a particular role to be reserved to those of a particular faith, was compatible with the directive and therefore made a reference to the Court of Justice under Article 267.
The Ruling: A More Balanced Approach Needed
The Court of Justice’s ruling made it clear that German law had gone too far by allowing such a wide scope for religious employers to determine for themselves whether a particular job could be reserved to those of a particular faith.
It noted that Article 4(2) of the Directive allowed the discrimination on grounds of religion only if having regard to the nature of the activity concerned or the context in which it is carried out, ‘religion or belief constitute[s] a genuine, legitimate and justified occupational requirement, having regard to the organisation’s ethos’ and concluded that:
‘if review of compliance with those criteria were, in the event of doubt as to that compliance, the task not of an independent authority such as a national court but of the church or organisation intending to practise a difference of treatment on grounds of religion or belief, [this provision of the Directive] would be deprived of effect.’
Interestingly, although the employer had cited both the guarantee of freedom of religion or belief (Article 10 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights) and Article 17 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, which provides that the Union ‘The Union respects and does not prejudice the status under national law of churches and religious associations or communities in the Member States’, the Court also relied heavily on constitutional principles to bolster its conclusion that excessive leeway had been granted to religious employers by German law.
The Court noted that Directive 2000/78 was merely a ‘specific expression, in the field covered by it, of the general prohibition of discrimination laid down in Article 21 of the Charter’ (which sets out a general ban on discrimination). It also noted that that when an individual establishes before a national court facts from which it may be presumed that there has been direct or indirect discrimination then, under Article 10 of the Directive, it is for the respondent to prove that there has been no breach of that principle. Thus, the need under Article 47 of the Charter to provide effective judicial protection of EU law rights meant that restricting the ability of the national courts to review the decision of an employer to impose a discriminatory requirement would be contrary to EU law.
Next, the Court held that the objective of Article 4(2) of the Directive was to ensure “a fair balance” between the autonomy rights of religious organisations and the right of workers to be free from discrimination. The Directive “sets out the criteria to be taken into account in the balancing exercise” and in the event of a dispute it must be possible for the balancing exercise to be reviewed by a national court. For the Court, the commitment to respecting the status of religious organisations in Article 17 of the Treaty could not change this conclusion.
That article’s function was:
‘to express the neutrality of the European Union towards the organization by the Member States of their relations with churches and religious associations and communities […] [and] is not such as to exempt compliance with the criteria set out in Article 4(2) of Directive 2000/78 from effective judicial review.’
Guidance on the Test to Be Applied
Having found that the German legislation was not compatible with the Directive the Court then had to address two further interesting issues. First, it had to give guidance to the national court on the question of how the ‘fair balancing’ ought to be carried out and then it had to advise on how to implement the consequences of its finding in the case.
In relation to how to carry out the ‘fair balancing’ the Court had to walk a tightrope. It acknowledged that under ECHR case law, states are precluded from assessing the legitimacy of the beliefs of a religious organization. However, it also had to ensure that the imposition of an occupational requirement relating to religion or belief was, in the words of the Directive ‘genuine, legitimate and justified, having regard to [the] ethos [of the religious employer]’. Thus it had to decide how to recognize the necessarily subjective requirements of the ethos of the employer, with the seemingly objective requirements of the ‘genuine, legitimate and justified’ test.
The Court adopted an approach that is significantly more objective than the approach taken in German law. It set out a test under which religious organisations must show an ’objectively verifiable existence of a direct link between the occupational requirement imposed by the employer and the activity concerned.’ Thus, in order to meet Article 4(2)’s requirements that the difference in treatment on grounds of religion be ‘genuine, legitimate and justified’ the Court held that:
‘To be considered ‘genuine’: ‘professing the religion or belief on which the ethos of the church or organisation is founded must appear necessary because of the importance of the occupational activity in question for the manifestation of that ethos or the exercise by the church or organisation of its right of autonomy.’
To be considered ‘legitimate’ it found that the national court must ‘ensure that the requirement of professing the religion or belief on which the ethos of the church or organisation is founded is not used to pursue an aim that has no connection with that ethos or with the exercise by the church or organisation of its right of autonomy.’
And to be considered justified the CJEU set down that ‘the church or organisation imposing the requirement is obliged to show, in the light of the factual circumstances of the case, that the supposed risk of causing harm to its ethos or to its right of autonomy is probable and substantial, so that imposing such a requirement is indeed necessary.’
Finally, although a proportionality requirement is not included in the text of Article 4(2) (and is included in other Articles of the Directive), the Court held that as proportionality is a general principle of EU law, the exemption given by Article 4(2) is to be read as being subject to a proportionality requirement.
Applying the Ruling
Given the possibility of a clash between German law and the requirements of the Directive the German court asked for guidance on how it should proceed if it proved impossible to interpret domestic law so as to comply with the Directive (bearing in mind the contra legem exception in the Marleasing line of case-law on the indirect effect of Directives; ie a national court cannot be required to interpret national law consistently with a Directive to the extent of ignoring the express wording of national law).
The Court seemed to doubt that an interpretation consistent with EU law was impossible, noting that the duty to interpret national law consistently with EU law included a duty for national courts ‘to change their established case-law where necessary’ (referring to the DI judgment on age discrimination, discussed here). However, it went on to say that should consistent interpretation prove impossible then the Court should disapply national law and give effect to the relevant EU law rights itself.
It justified this position on the basis that Directive 2000/78 did not establish the right to equal treatment. Rather it sets out a framework for combatting discrimination on various grounds. The right to equal treatment is, the Court held, a general principle of law and is enshrined in Article 21 of the Charter. Given that Article 47 of the Charter requires that adequate judicial protection be given to such rights, national courts have to ensure ‘the judicial protection deriving for individuals from Articles 21 and 47 of the Charter and to guarantee the full effectiveness of those articles by disapplying if need be any contrary provision of national law.’ This develops earlier case law on the issue of when the Charter itself does (and does not) have direct effect, in particular the AMS case discussed here; and it confirms the UK case law on the direct effect of Article 47 (Vidal-Hall and Benkharbouche, discussed here and here).
The Court of Justice has given a notably constitutionalized interpretation of the Directive in this case. It has relied on the Charter and general principles of law to read a proportionality test into Article 4(2) that did not appear in the text. It has insisted on proportionality as the framework within which the ‘fair balancing’ of the autonomy rights of religious employers and equal treatment rights of employees must take place.
This approach is in tension with recent trends in the caselaw of the Strasbourg Court. In cases such as Fernandez Martinez v Spain, the Court of Human Rights had moved away somewhat from the balancing of rights seen in its earlier caselaw and had moved closer to the ‘ministerial exemption’ model used in the United States, under which religious organisations have an absolute exemption from non-discrimination laws in respect of roles that include religious functions. Given the strong emphasis placed on proportionality by the EU legal order, unsurprisingly, in Egenberger, the Court of Justice has clearly come down in favour of the balancing approach (see R. McCrea “Singing from the Same Hymn Sheet? What the Differences between the Strasbourg and Luxembourg Courts Tell Us about Religious Freedom, Non-Discrimination and the Secular State” Oxford Journal of Law and Religion (2016) 5(2) 183-210, 198-99).
The Court’s insistence that EU non-discrimination law merely codifies a self-executing (and horizontally directly effective) constitutional general principle of non-discrimination law represents a continuation of the controversial line of cases beginning in Mangoldwhich has attracted significant criticism, including from national courts given the potential for legal uncertainty that such an approach involves. Here, the Court of Justice has made it clear that the EU’s constitutional commitment to proportionality means that religious bodies may only impose discriminatory conditions on employees when it is proportionate to do so and national courts must be empowered to ensure religious employers do not exercise their right to discriminate in a disproportionate way.
This is in tension with the approach adopted by the German legislature which, in the light of German constitutional guarantees of religious autonomy, gave very restricted powers to the courts to second guess the decisions of religious bodies in this way. Given that EU and German constitutional norms appear to be in tension with each other in this way it will be interesting to see how this ruling is applied by the national court. The German constitutional provisions on religious autonomy go all the way back to the Weimar constitution and are taken very seriously, though it may be an exaggeration to view them as constituting the kind of core ‘constitutional identity’ that might trigger a refusal by the German courts to give primacy to EU law.