Updated | Employers can ban headscarves from workplaces, European court rules

The European Court of Justice has ruled that employers are allowed to ban employees from wearing visible religious symbols in the workplace

Banning the headscarf is not discriminatory if there is an existing ban on all employees wearing visible religious symbols, the court says
Banning the headscarf is not discriminatory if there is an existing ban on all employees wearing visible religious symbols, the court says

The European Court of Justice has ruled in a landmark decision that companies can ban employees from wearing the Islamic headscarf, but only as part of prohibitions including other religious symbols.

The European Court of Justice said it does not constitute "direct discrimination" if a firm has an internal rule banning the wearing of "any political, philosophical or religious sign."

"An internal rule of an undertaking which prohibits the visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious sign does not constitute direct discrimination," the European Court of Justice (ECJ) said in a statement. "However, in the absence of such a rule, the willingness of an employer to take account of the wishes of a customer no longer to have the employer's services provided by a worker wearing an Islamic headscarf cannot be considered an occupational requirement that could rule out discrimination."

It is the court's first decision on the issue of Islamic headscarves at work.

The ECJ's ruling was prompted by the case of a receptionist fired for wearing a headscarf to work at the company G4S in Belgium, which has a general ban on wearing visible religious or political symbols.

The G4S dispute, which started in 2006, was originally based on an “unwritten rule” banning employees wearing signs of their political, philosophical or religious beliefs, but the company’s workplace regulations were updated after the woman started wearing a hijab. 

Belgium's court of cassation had referred the case to the EU's top court for clarification whether the move was a “genuine and determining occupational requirement” and whether there were any formal rules in place that meet non-discrimination requirements. 

Although they apply to all beliefs, the ECJ said it was “not inconceivable” that such rules could be deemed discriminatory for indirectly targeting Islam over other religions.

In a reaction, Amnesty International argued that the ECJ ruling gives greater leeway to employers to discriminate against women and men on grounds of religious belief.

“At a time when identity and appearance has become a political battleground, people need more protection against prejudice, not less,” John Dalhuisen, Director of Amnesty International's Europe and Central Asia programme said.

"The court did say that employers are not at liberty to pander to the prejudices of their clients. But by ruling that company policies can prohibit religious symbols on the grounds of neutrality, they have opened a backdoor to precisely such prejudice. It is now for national governments to step up and protect the rights of their citizens.”

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