Luxemburg, March 15: Employers can ban staff from wearing visible religious symbols such as the burka, the European Union's top court has ruled. The ruling came in its first decision on the issue of women wearing Islamic headscarves at work.The European Court of Justice (ECJ) said it does not constitute “direct discrimination” if a company has a rule banning the wearing of “any political, philosophical or religious sign.” The ruling was made with regard to two separate lawsuits: one by a Muslim woman in Belgium, and another by a Muslim woman in France.
In the Belgian suit, Samira Achbita was fired from the security firm where she’d worked for three years after she began wearing a hijab to work the company reportedly said she’d broken “unwritten rules” prohibiting religious symbols. In the second case, another Muslim woman, Asma Bougnaoui was fired from a tech-consultancy firm after a customer said his employees were “embarrassed” by the hijab she wore while giving them a presentation.
In Achbita’s case, the court ruled that companies are allowed to have policies banning religious symbols from the workplace. Although the European Union has laws in place that bar religious discrimination, Achbita’s firing was based on the equal application of company policy and was not discriminatory. But in Bougnaoui’s case, the court ruled in her favor, saying that because the demand came from a client and not her employer, it “cannot be considered a genuine and determining occupational requirement.”
François Fillon, the French presidential candidate, issued a statement that called it an “immense relief, not just for thousands of companies but also for their workers.” He added that the ruling would be “a factor in cohesion and social peace” in Europe. Meanwhile, Germany’s right-wing Populist Party, Alternative für Deutschland, said the ruling “sends out the right signal, especially for Germany.”
The Open Society Justice Initiative, a group backed by the philanthropist George Soros, said the ruling "weakens the guarantee of equality" offered by EU non-discrimination laws. In many member states, national laws will still recognize that banning religious headscarves at work is discrimination," policy officer Maryam Hmadoun said. But in places where national law is weak, this ruling will exclude many Muslim women from the workplace, he added.