EU court ruling permits employers to ban wearing of visual religious symbols at work

The EU's recent court ruling means employers can't be accused of discrimination if their workplace culture requires neutral dress

The European Union’s top court has ruled that employers may forbid employees from wearing visible symbols of religious-political or philosophical belief, including headscarves.

The EU ruling on religion at work

Following the Luxembourg-based tribunal, private businesses can no longer be charged with discrimination by banning the wearing of visual religious symbols in the workplace if the business requires employees to dress in what the court has called “a neutral way”.

“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,” read a statement from the court.

The ruling follows a recent German court case where two women were suspended from their respective jobs after they started wearing the hijab where they had not before but decided to do so after returning from parental leave. Their employers told them that this was not allowed and were at different points either suspended, told to come to work without it, or put on a different job, according to court documents.

Activists are concerned that the latest ruling could curtail freedoms and increase prejudice. Turkey’s cabinet ministers have already criticised the ruling stating it could increase Islamophobia as it will be Muslim women who will be affected most due to the prevalence of the hijab as a form of religious and cultural expression.

However, the EU also said that courts in its 27 member states should consider whether the ban “corresponded to a genuine need on the part of the employer.” They also said that employers must consider the rights and interests of the employee and consider their national legislation on freedom of religion.

The news follows a 2017 ruling where the European Union court in Luxembourg said that companies might ban staff from wearing headscarves and other visible religious symbols under certain conditions, a move that sparked a backlash from faith groups.

In 2014, France’s top court upheld the dismissal of a Muslim daycare worker for wearing a headscarf at a private creche business that demanded: “strict neutrality from employees.” They also prohibited the wearing of Islamic headscarves in state schools in 2004.

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