European employers can ban workers from wearing any visible sign of their political, philosophical or religious beliefs, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled on Thursday.
According to the EU’s top court, the ban “may be justified by the employer’s need to present itself in a neutral manner to customers or to prevent social conflicts.”
The ECJ said such a ban would not constitute discrimination if it is applied to all beliefs.
The court delivered the verdict in a case brought before it by two German female workers, a special education teacher and a cashier, who were asked by their employers not to wear Islamic headscarves while at work.
“Blanket bans on individual religious symbols in the workplace are and will remain prohibited,” stressed Germany’s national anti-discrimination commissioner, Ferda Ataman, while reacting to the ruling.
Companies that wanted to ban religious symbols such as crosses, kippahs or headscarves would have to face high hurdles and ultimately ban everything religious, “from the cross to the headscarf to the Christmas party,” said Ataman.
Religious diversity in the workplace is a lived reality in Germany, she said. “I am glad that many companies in Germany see it the same way – and do not see diversity as a problem, but as an enrichment.”
The latest ECJ’s verdict confirms a similar ruling made in 2017 that allowed employers to enforce a “neutral” dress code but critics say it will disproportionately affect Muslim women.
Maryam H’madoun of the Open Society Justice Initiative (OCJI), warned that the ruling may lead to many Muslim women as well as those of other religious minorities being excluded from public-facing roles in the workplace.
“Laws, policies and practices prohibiting religious dress are targeted manifestations of Islamophobia that seek to exclude Muslim women from public life or render them invisible,” she said in a statement.
“Courts across Europe and the UN Human Rights Committee have emphasised that the wearing of a headscarf does not cause any form of harm that would give rise to a ‘genuine need’ by an employer to implement such practices.
“To the contrary, such policies and practices stigmatise women belonging to or perceived to belong to Europe’s racial, ethnic, and religious minorities, increasing the risk of higher rates of violence and hate crimes, and risking the intensifying and entrenching of xenophobia and racial discrimination, and ethnic inequalities,” she added.