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The European Union’s top court ruled that companies in the bloc can ban the visible wearing of religious symbols, including headscarves, but noted that employers will need to justify any restrictions, Reuters reported.
The case concerns a Muslim woman who had applied for a six-week traineeship at a Belgian company. Her employer told the woman that she would not be allowed to wear a headscarf, citing the firm’s neutrality rule – meaning no head covering is allowed on its premises, be it a cap, hat or scarf.
The woman appealed to a Belgian court, which then sought advice from the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU).
The EU court said in its verdict that the neutrality rule “does not constitute direct discrimination if it is applied to all workers in a general and undifferentiated way.” It did warn, however, that the company rules could be deemed to be indirectly discriminatory if they disadvantage someone of a particular religion or belief.
The court added that a disparity in employee treatment would not be considered indirect discrimination if it was objectively justified by a reasonable goal on the part of the employer, which the employer would have to demonstrate.
Last year, the CJEU ruled that companies around the bloc can ban employees from wearing headscarves under certain conditions, such as if they needed to do so to project an image of neutrality to customers.
But even then, it stressed that the ban must “meet a genuine need on the part of the employer” and that national courts in the bloc may take into account “the specific context” in their country, “and, in particular, more favorable national provisions concerning the protection of freedom of religion,” according to Euronews.
In Germany, bans on headscarves for women at work have been a source of contention for many years, most notably for teachers in public schools and judges.
In 2004, France – which has Europe’s largest Muslim minority – forbade the wearing of headscarves in public schools.