EU court rules public administrations may ban headscarves for employees – JURIST

The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) ruled Tuesday that EU member state government bodies and agencies are allowed to ban their employees from wearing headscarves and other religious symbols.

The case came to the CJEU to decide whether a “strict neutrality” religious symbol policy in workplaces amounted to discrimination contrary to EU law, specifically Council Directive 2000/78/EC on equal treatment in employment and occupation. Article 2 of the directive enshrines the principle of equal treatment, prohibiting both direct and indirect discrimination in the workplace, with an example being on the grounds of religion.

The CJEU previously ruled that a policy prohibiting displays of any religious, political or philosophical symbol at work is not direct discrimination. However, the court conceded that it could amount to indirect discrimination if the rule affected members of a particular religious group (such as Muslims) more than others.

The CJEU clarified its position, stating that such policies would not amount to indirect discrimination if “objectively justified by a legitimate aim and if the means of achieving that aim are appropriate and necessary.” Notably, another government agency could allow its employees of all faiths to wear religious symbols.

An employee who wanted to wear a religious headscarf to work in Ans, Belgium, was denied the request. Ans then implemented a policy of “strict neutrality,” preventing employees from wearing religious or ideological symbols, which prompted the employee to sue for religious discrimination.

In another precedent set in July 2021, the CJEU ruled that companies in the European Union could prohibit employees from wearing headscarves under certain conditions to project an image of neutrality to customers. This earlier decision sparked criticism, with the Turkish Foreign Ministry condemning it as granting legitimacy to racism and contributing to the rise of Islamophobia in Europe.

The broader issue of religious coverings, notably the headscarf, remains contentious. European countries adopt varying approaches, from bans on full-face veils to headscarves as religious symbols in public spaces. The CJEU’s ruling demonstrates a that member states can use their own discretion in future decisions.

The case also raised the question of whether a prohibition on the Islamic headscarf would amount to indirect discrimination based on sex. The CJEU rules the question as inadmissible. However, it adds to the discussion that such laws foster increased marginalisation of Muslim women in Europe.

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