Employers Can Ban Muslim Veils at Work, Top EU Court Rules

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Right-wing politicians across the European Union are cheering the Thursday morning decision against religious insignia.

The EU’s top court ruled on Thursday that companies can ban their employees from wearing headscarves and other religious symbols while on the clock.

“An internal rule of an undertaking, prohibiting workers from wearing any visible sign of political, philosophical or religious beliefs in the workplace, does not constitute, with regard to workers who observe certain clothing rules based on religious precepts, direct discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief,” the Luxembourg-based court wrote. 

The two cases were referred to the Luxembourg-based court from the Hamburg Labor Court and the Federal Labor Court, both in Germany, which is home to more than 5 million Muslims, making them the largest religious minority in the country. 

Court filings do not identify the Muslim female workers by name. 

In one case, WABE, a nonprofit day care organization, adopted a so-called neutrality policy that, among other things, forbade employees from wearing “any signs of their political, ideological or religious beliefs that are visible to parents, children and third parties in the workplace.” The policy was adopted while an employer who wore a headscarf was on maternity leave. When she returned, she was sent home repeatedly and then suspended for wearing the Islamic covering otherwise known as a hijab. 

In the second case, an employee of German drugstore chain Müller’s began wearing a headscarf while she was on maternity leave. The company forbade customer-facing employees from wearing head covers and, when she returned to work, transferred her to another role. Two years later, the company adopted a requirement that employees must not wear religious, political or philosophical indications while at work and sent her home until she would remove it. Both companies argued they would suffer economic harm by allowing their employees to wear headscarves. 

The European Court of Justice consolidated the two cases for review and agreed Thursday that, in the interest of neutrality, EU employers can forbid workers from wearing political, philosophical or religious beliefs in the workplace. The ruling follows what a nonbinding opinion earlier this year from a court magistrate, who argued that companies could limit the prominence of religious symbols.

“I am of the opinion that the fact that an employer pursues a policy of political, ideological or religious neutrality in relations with its clients is not inconsistent with the fact that its employees — visible or invisible — at work bear signs of political, ideological or religious beliefs that are small — that is to say, discreet — and do not stand out at first sight,” Advocate General Athanasios Rantos wrote.

But the court disagreed, writing, “the wearing of any sign, even a small-sized one … calls into question the consistency of that policy of neutrality.” 

In Thursday’s decision, the court did limit any potential bans to “what is strictly necessary,” writing that companies must be at risk of severe consequences if their employees wear a headscarf or any other religious symbol. “The mere desire of an employer to pursue a policy of neutrality — while in itself a legitimate aim — is not sufficient, as such, to justify objectively a difference of treatment indirectly based on religion or belief,” the court found. 

Headscarves have been a diverse issue around the EU. In a 2017 decision, the court found that banning headscarves in the workplace didn’t constitute discrimination, so long as it was in line with a broader policy of ideological neutrality. 

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