A Dutch court has backed the suspension of a Muslim man’s benefits over his refusal on religious grounds to shave his beard while on training for a job.
The unnamed man had been offered a job as an asbestos removal officer but was subsequently told he would need to be clean shaven in order to undergo the training course.
When he refused on the basis of his religious convictions, Amersfoort city council suspended for a month payments to both him and his wife under the Participatiewet, which provides for a minimum income for every legal resident in the Netherlands.
The man appealed the decision at the court of central Netherlands, where he claimed that the removal of his benefits was an infringement of article nine of the European convention on human rights which protects the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
The council argued that there was a danger of asbestos particles ending up in the man’s beard, which is harmful to his health. They added that his facial hair would also impact on the effectiveness of the respiratory mask he would need to wear.
Lawyers for the council went on to conclude that the man, who had been unemployed for two years, would have received an automatic job on completing his training and that they had to act in the interests of the taxpayer.
The man responded that he would have been willing to wear an alternative respiratory mask on the market suitable for those with beards but the court concluded that the training required the use of a specific mask.
The court’s appeal board ruled that the decision was “unmistakably an infringement of [the man’s] right to religious freedom” but that this was tolerable if there was a legal basis and society required it.
In the summing up the judges took into account the lack of any prospect of other employment given the man’s history including time in jail, psychological problems and a gambling addiction.
“The provision offered … did not involve any internship or training, but was provided with a job guarantee”, the court said. “For the appellant, the training was therefore an excellent, concrete chance for regular work …
“Due to the refusal to participate in the training, the appellant did not make use of the guaranteed opportunity to gain access to the labour market. As a result, he put undue pressure on the public funds to the detriment of those who, in solidarity, bear the costs of the provisions in the Participatiewet.”
The judges ruled that the suspension of payments was “deemed necessary in the interest of the protection of the rights and freedoms of others”.
The Dutch welfare system has undergone significant changes in recent years corresponding with a fall in unemployment from 6.9% in 2014 to around 3.9% today, the pre-financial crisis level. But real wage growth has been slow with work contracts being increasingly short-term.