The European Court of Justice – the EU’s highest court – ruled that businesses were allowed to require employees to remove items of religious dress in order to maintain a ‘neutral image’ to customers.
The judgement means that courts in all 27 European Union states will now have the power to uphold decisions to sack Muslim women who refuse to remove their hijabs or other headscarves for work.
European Muslims have expressed their disappointment over the decision, raising fears that it could stoke already-rising levels of islamophobia in the region.
‘This judgment is not just a blow against active, dynamic and working Muslim women,’ EU Muslim Network member Suliaman Wilms told The Telegraph, ‘it’s the confirmation of an ongoing European trend to constrain the religious expression of their faith and spiritual life praxis.’
Meanwhile, in a statement to Reuters, Maryam H’madoun of The Open Society Justice Initiative warned the decision ‘may continue to exclude many Muslim women, and those of other religious minorities, from various jobs in Europe.’
The court ruled in two cases in Germany where Muslim women were suspended for refusing to remove their hijabs for work. In one case the employee was a cashier at a supermarket, with the other a support worker for children with special needs.
Neither woman had worn a hijab when they were hired, and the court ruled that they had not been discriminated against due to their religion as their employer were able to prove they had also asked other staff to remove religious symbols, including Christian cross necklaces.
The ECJ wrote in its decision:
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.
The court’s ruling puts it in apparent conflict with the European Court of Human Rights – a non-EU body – which ruled in 2013 that wearing religious symbols at work was a fundamental right.
A number of EU member states have issued their own judgements in recent years concerning the Muslim head and face coverings. France has continued to ban religious face coverings since implementing its so-called ‘Burqa ban‘ in 2010, while children attending French state schools have been banned from wearing headscarves while in class since 2014.