Christiane Ebrahimian was a psychiatric social worker on a fixed-term contract at Nanterre Hospital and Social Care Centre. In 2000 the Director of Human Resources told her that, following complaints from patients, her contract would not be renewed because she refused to remove her headgear. He also sent her a written reminder of the Conseil d’État’s opinion of 3 May 2000 that the principles of freedom of conscience, laïcité and neutrality in public services prevented public officials from manifesting their religious beliefs while discharging their functions and that wearing a visible symbol of religious affiliation was a breach of a public official’s duties.
Ms Ebrahimian applied unsuccessfully to the Paris Administrative Court. The Paris Administrative Court of Appeal held that the decision of the lower court related to a disciplinary matter and set it aside on grounds of procedural irregularity. In the light of that judgment, the Director of Human Resources invited Ms Ebrahimian to consult her file and, in a reasoned decision of 13 May 2005, confirmed to her that her contract would not be renewed. She then applied to the Administrative Court of Versailles to set that decision aside, but without success; and the Versailles Administrative Court of Appeal upheld that judgment. The Conseil d’Etat declared inadmissible an appeal on points of law.
In Ebrahimian v France  ECHR 1041, relying on Article 9 (thought, conscience and religion), she complained before the Fifth Section that the decision not to renew her contract breached her right to manifest her religion. The Court held by six votes to one (De Gaetano J dissenting) that there had not been a violation of Article 9.
It is not crystal-clear from the judgment (which is available only in French) whether Ms Ebrahimian was wearing a hijab or a niqab: the judgment frequently refers to a voile rather than to a foulard.
However, whatever Ms Ebrahimian was wearing, it was considered to be an ostentatious manifestation of her religion that was incompatible with the neutral space required by a public service . The principle of secularism as defined in Article 1 of the French Constitution and the resulting principle of neutrality of public services were in opposition to the applicant because of the need to ensure equal treatment of the users of the public institution that employed her: it demanded obedience to the strict duty of neutrality in the exercise of its functions. According to the national courts its purpose was to ensure the neutrality of the state, to ensure its secular nature and, therefore, to protect patients from any risk of influence or bias in relation to their right to freedom of conscience. It was clear from the record that the contested decision was founded on the imperative of protecting the rights and freedom of others, not the claimant’s religious beliefs .
The Court had already accepted that states parties could invoke the principles of secularism and state neutrality to justify restrictions on public servants wearing religious symbols: especially teachers working in public institutions. It was the status of public official that distinguished them from ordinary citizens. Similarly, in the circumstances of the an employee in a public hospital who was in contact with patients, it was legitimate to avoid manifestation of religious beliefs so as to ensure equal treatment of the sick; the neutrality of the public hospital service could be regarded as linked to the attitude of its officers and demanded that patients should not be in doubt about their impartiality . The interference was proportionate to the aim pursued and, in the circumstances, a wide margin of appreciation was appropriate .
The limitation on religious manifestation by public officials in France was is rooted in the principle of state secularism which, according to the Conseil d’État, “engages relations between public authorities and individuals” (intéresse les relations entre les collectivités publiques et les particuliers) and the neutrality of public services . There was no doubt that, after publication of the opinion of the Conseil d’État of 3 May 2000, Ms Ebrahimian knew that she was required to comply with a requirement to dress in a neutral way. In these circumstances, the domestic authorities had not overstepped their margin of appreciation .
It was not for the Court to rule on the French model. There was nothing in any text or decision of the Conseil d’État to say that the requirement of neutrality could be tailored to the needs of particular officials and the functions they carried out. It was a strict requirement which had its roots in the relationship established between the secular nature of the state and the freedom of conscience, as stated in Article 1 of the Constitution. The interference could therefore be regarded as proportionate to the aim pursued and, accordingly, the interference with the claimant’s freedom to manifest her religion was necessary in a democratic society; and there had been no violation of Article 9.
In light of the Grand Chamber judgment in SAS v France (which, it will be remembered, involved a private citizen, not a public employee) the judgment in Ebrahimian hardly comes as any surprise. De Gaetano J entered a powerful dissent, so short that it is worth reproducing virtually in full:
“… there has been a violation of Article 9. The thrust of the judgment is to the effect that the abstract principle of laïcité or secularism of the State requires a blanket prohibition on the wearing by a public official at work of any symbol denoting his or her religious belief. That abstract principle becomes in and of itself a ‘pressing social need’ to justify the interference with a fundamental human right. The attempt to hedge the case and to limit its purport to the specific facts applicable to the applicant is, as pointed out by Judge O’Leary, very weak and at times contradictory. The judgment proceeds from and rests on the false (and, I would add, very dangerous) premise, reflected in paragraph 64, that the users of public services cannot be guaranteed an impartial service if the public official serving them manifests in the slightest way his or her religious affiliation – even though quite often, from the very name of the official displayed on the desk or elsewhere, one can be reasonably certain of the religious affiliation of that official.
Moreover, it would also seem that what is prohibited under French law with regard to public officials is the subjective manifestation of one’s religious belief and not the objective wearing of a particular piece of clothing or other symbol. A woman may wear a headscarf not to manifest a religious belief, or any belief for that matter, but for a variety of other reasons. The same can be said of a man wearing a full beard, or a person wearing a cross with a necklace. Requiring a public official to ‘disclose’ whether that item of clothing is a manifestation or otherwise of his or her religious belief does not sit well with the purported benefits enjoyed by public officials as mentioned in paragraph 66 of the judgment.
While States have a wide margin of appreciation as to the conditions of service of public officials, that margin is not without limits. A principle of constitutional law or a constitutional ‘tradition’ may easily end up by being deified, thereby undermining every value underpinning the Convention. This judgment comes dangerously close to doing exactly that.”
To which one might add that at least the Court didn’t invoke the novel principle of “living together”, as the Grand Chamber did in SAS.
And De Gaetano’s point about names is an acute one: some names will be perceived by the service user as having a particular religious connotation even if that perception happens to be totally wrong in the individual case. There aren’t many Christians called Mohammed; equally, I doubt many Hindus are called Bernadette or Luther. So should hospital staff be known only by their initials, lest they upset the religious sensibilities of patients even though by misperception? (Though, that said, “Christiane” sounds a rather unusual name for a Muslim.)
For a highly-critical analysis of the judgment, see Eva Brems: Ebrahimian v France: headscarf ban upheld for entire public sector.