Michael Segal discusses a case where religious dress was thought to interfere with teaching, clarifying a school’s legal position in this situation somewhat

QUESTION: Can the school restrict a teacher’s religious observance if it interferes with her work?

ANSWER: The case of Azmi v Kirklees Metropolitan Borough Council, [2007] ELR 339, concerned Mrs Azmi, a bilingual support worker at a junior school. Her job required her to work as part of a team to support the learning and welfare of pupils, and to assist with children from ethnic minority backgrounds.

Mrs Azmi was a devout Muslim and had, since the age of 16, worn a face- veil (niqab) when in the presence of adult males. During the first week of term she asked either to wear the niqab when working with male teachers, or not to work with men. The head teacher said that it was not possible to isolate her from male staff, or to rearrange her duties.

The LEA had advised that wearing the veil reduces non-verbal signals. A pupil needs to see the adult’s full face. The desire to express religious identity did not overcome the primary requirement for communication between adult and children.

A formal instruction
It was observed that the veil reduced Mrs Azmi’s effectiveness. The head teacher reminded her that he had asked her not to wear the veil when working with children. She could wear it in open areas and when walking around the school.

She was given a formal instruction that she should be ‘unveiled in school’, but the head teacher told her that this instruction applied only when she was working with children.

She began a period of sick leave and raised a grievance ‘about the manner in which I have been discriminated against in regards to wearing my veil due to my religious belief’.

At the end of her sick leave, Mrs Azmi returned to the school, and said that she was unwilling to comply with the head teacher’s instruction. She was suspended for not obeying the instruction not to be veiled when communicating with children. She brought proceedings against the council, alleging discrimination on the ground of her Muslim religion.

A limited right

The tribunal said that the law did not give an employee unrestricted protection in respect of the wearing of clothing, where this was a manifestation of religious belief.

There was no question here of a general prejudice against Muslims. Article nine of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights, provides that freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necesary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

This confers only a limited right to manifest one’s religion, and recognises that there are areas where such manifestation can be restrained.

The wearing of the veil was not an absolute right. The tribunal was entitled to examine the school’s reasons for the limitation, and to consider whether the limitation was a legitimate response to a legitimate aim.

A genuine requirement
The limitation was to refrain from wearing clothing that covered the face and mouth, and to refrain from wearing clothing that interfered with the employee’s ability to communicate with pupils. It was a genuine requirement, not one that was targeted at the veil.

The limitation did put persons of Mrs Azmi’s belief at a disadvantage when compared with others — in that she saw wearing the veil as a requirement of her religion, whereas those of another religion did not have such a requirement and would therefore not be affected by the prohibition. The limitation was nevertheless a proportionate means of achieving the school’s legitimate aim of ensuring that children receive the best possible instruction and assistance in the learning of English. The tribunal specifically took into account the head teacher’s attempt to accommodate Mrs Amzi’s wishes by giving her permission to wear the veil in open areas and when walking around the school.

Mrs Azmi appealed to the Education Appeal Tribunal, which held that the original tribunal had not erred in law, and had been entitled to reach its decision on the facts.

The Education Appeal Tribunal therefore upheld the decision of the original tribunal, and dismissed the appeal.

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