Businesses in EU countries may ban employees from wearing religious symbols, including headscarves, and articles revealing political beliefs, the bloc’s highest court has ruled.
The ban was justified, said the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg, by an employer’s need to present a neutral image and backed up previous rulings.
However, the court also said in its judgment on Thursday that national courts in the bloc’s 27 members should consider whether the ban corresponded to a “genuine need” on the part of the employer. National courts should also appraise the rights and interests of the employee, including by taking into account state legislation on freedom of religion, it said.
The decision was made in a ruling on two cases brought by women in Germany who had been suspended from their jobs for wearing one.
In the court cases, both Muslim women – a special-needs carer at a childcare centre in Hamburg run by a charitable association, and a cashier at a pharmacy chain – did not wear headscarves when they started in their jobs, but decided to do so years later after returning from parental leave.
Religion and belief discrimination
They were told that this was not allowed, and were at different points either suspended, asked to come to work without the headscarves, or were given different tasks, court documents showed.
The EU court looked at whether headscarf bans at work breached the freedom to practise religion or were allowed as part of the freedom to conduct a business.
“A prohibition on wearing any visible form of expression of political, philosophical or religious beliefs in the workplace may be justified by the employer’s need to present a neutral image towards customers or to prevent social disputes,” the court said. This justification had to correspond to a genuine need on the part of the employer, the ruling emphasised.
For the care centre employee’s case, the court said the employer’s request they remove their headscarf was fair because they had also asked another staff member to stop wearing a religious cross.
In both cases, it will now be up to national courts to have the final say on whether there was any discrimination.
The EU court already ruled in 2017 that companies may ban staff from wearing Islamic headscarves and other visible religious symbols under certain conditions.
Maryam H’madoun, a Belgian campaigner against headscarf bans and a justice policy officer for the Open Society foundation, told The Times that the ruling could lead to discrimination amid rising hostility to Muslims across Europe.
“Laws, policies and practices prohibiting religious dress are targeted manifestations of Islamophobia that seek to exclude Muslim women from public life or render them invisible,” she said. “Discrimination masquerading as ‘neutrality’ is the veil that actually needs to be lifted. A rule that expects every person to have the same outward appearance is not neutral. It deliberately discriminates against people because they are visibly religious.”
National courts have already ruled in several cases involving Muslim dress. In France the supreme court ruled in 2014 that sacking a Muslim daycare worker for wearing a headscarf at a private crèche was legal under the “neutrality” requirement.
France banned the wearing of Islamic headscarves in state schools in 2004.