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Religious symbols in workplace can be banned, EU Court of Justice rules

08 December 2023


Muslim women share an iftar in a Rotterdam street during Ramadan in April this year

Muslim women share an iftar in a Rotterdam street during Ramadan in April this year

THE Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has ruled that member states are permitted to ban workers from wearing religious symbols such as the hijab in public workplaces, in the interests of neutrality.

The ruling last week said that such bans were allowed, so as to “enforce an entirely neutral administrative environment”; but it said that there was an element of discretion for national courts, which should be able to decide how to balance the neutrality of the public service against the rights of the individual.

What was most important was that bans on clothing or religious symbols had to be applied consistently and evenly, the court ruled.

The court was asked to rule after the case of a woman from Belgium who launched a legal challenge after the municipality of Ans told her that she could not wear a headscarf at work. She argued that her right to freedom of religion had been infringed by her employer’s decision.

The municipality changed its terms of employment to say that employees had to observe strict neutrality, and could not wear sign any signs of religious affiliation.

But the complainant produced photographs to show that “discreet signs of conviction were tolerated”, including the wearing of earrings with a cross, or the holding of Christmas parties.

The court of Liège, in Belgium, asked the CJEU to decide whether the strict neutrality policy in workplaces amounted to discrimination.

The court ruled that a prohibition “of any sign revealing philosophical or religious beliefs . . . is not discriminatory if it is applied in a general and indiscriminate manner to all of that administration’s staff and is limited to what is strictly necessary”.

It also said that authorities in member states had some discretion in deciding what degree of neutrality they wanted to promote.

The ruling covers public-sector offices in the EU. In 2021, the court ruled that private-sector employers could limit the expression of religious, political, or philosophical beliefs when there was a “genuine need” to “present a neutral image towards customers or to prevent social dispute”.

In the UK, guidance from the Government says that employers must be flexible in their approach to religious symbols and dress, and employees should not be prevented from wearing crosses, head coverings, or other symbols, unless it directly interferes with their ability to carry out their duties.

France has had a ban on religious symbols, including headscarves, in state schools and government buildings, since 2004. It also announced this autumn a ban on female students’ wearing abayas — full-length robes — in state schools.

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