European Court of Justice Ban on Islamic Headscarves at Work

The EU’s highest court, the European Court of Justice (ECJ), has ruled that employers can ban staff from wearing visible religious symbols. In a decision regarding the issue of women wearing Islamic headscarves at work, the European court of justice in Luxembourg ruled that headscarves could be banned, but only as part of a general policy barring all religious and political symbols.

It ruled that a company’s wish to project a neutral image was legitimate and followed a general internal policy, banning political, philosophical or religious symbols.

The case was referred to the ECJ by the Belgian courts and considered whether a receptionist for the Belgian branch of the security company G4S, was unfairly dismissed for refusing to take off her scarf. The company said she had broken unwritten rules prohibiting religious symbols. The court found that G4S had a company policy regarding the wearing of visible signs of political, philosophical or religious beliefs. It found that the policy treated all employees in the same way by requiring them to dress neutrally.

This ruling, which is much more subtle than a clear “ban” is likely to generate confusion about which religious symbols can and cannot be worn at work. Indeed, some legal experts have already suggested that the ruling contradicts a previous ruling from the European court of human rights (ECHR) that allowed crosses to be worn at work!

The ruling has prompted a flurry of responses from various religious groups. The Conference of European Rabbis, which comprises 700 Jewish leaders across Europe, said Europe was sending a clear message that its faith communities were no longer welcome. However, the National Secular Society in the UK has welcomed the ruling, saying that if a ban is founded on a general company policy of religious and political neutrality, and applied equally to all, it cannot constitute ‘less favourable treatment’.
Employers would be ill-advised to respond to this ruling too quickly. Policies stipulating religious neutrality must be proportionate and set against the context in which the organisation is operating.

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