Salvation outside the church? The ECJ rules on religious discrimination in employment


The Court of
Justice has issued its first major ruling
on the reconciliation of the autonomy rights of religious organisations with
the right of employees (or potential employees) of such organisations to be
free of discrimination.
In 2012 Vera
Egenberger applied for a fixed term post advertised by the Evangelisches Werk
für Diakonie und Entwicklung, which is a body associated with the Evangelische
Kirche in Deutschland (a German Protestant church). The post advertised
sought a person who could prepare a report on Germany’s compliance with the
United Nations International Convention
on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Ms. Egenberger had
significant experience in this area and applied for the post. However, there
was a problem. Ms. Egenberger is a person who does not have a religious faith
and the relevant advert included the following statement:

‘We require membership of a Protestant church, or of a church which
is a member of the Arbeitsgemeinschaft Christlicher Kirchen in Deutschland
(Cooperative of Christian Churches in Germany), and identification with the
welfare mission. Please state your membership in your curriculum vitae.’

Ms. Egenberger
was not called for interview. She took a case in the German courts alleging
discrimination on grounds of religion.

discrimination in employment on grounds of religion is regulated by EU law, in
the form of Directive
(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).

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.’

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

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.’

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 Mangold
which 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.

Barnard &
Peers: chapter 9, chapter 20

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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