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EU court backs employers banning hijabs to show ‘neutral’ image
Islam in Europe

EU court backs employers banning hijabs to show ‘neutral’ image

Luxembourg-based judges rule garb signifying religious beliefs can be limited as long as specific faiths aren't targeted
Photo credit: Shutterstock

The European Union’s top court backed employers banning Islamic headscarves and other religious attire -- provided the curbs are vital to show neutrality in the workplace and don’t single out specific beliefs.

Such bans on garments that express certain political, philosophical or religious beliefs may be justified “by the employer’s need to present a neutral image toward customers or to prevent social disputes,” the EU Court of Justice said in a binding ruling on Thursday.

EU judges ruled that while employers may have a legitimate aim in trying to display a certain neutrality toward their customers, this desire “is not sufficient” alone “to justify objectively a difference of treatment indirectly based on religion or belief.”

A genuine need could be based on “the rights and legitimate wishes of customers or users” or “parents’ wish to have their children supervised by persons who do not manifest their religion or belief when they are in contact with the children,” the EU court said. Employers would need to show that otherwise their “freedom to conduct a business would be undermined.”

Thursday’s case concerns two women in Germany who wore a hijab -- a headscarf commonly worn by Muslim women -- at their respective places of work. One was employed as a special needs carer, the other as a sales assistant and cashier. Both women were told to remove their scarf at work, with one being temporarily suspended from work when she refused and the other transferred to another post, then told to come back without “conspicuous, large-sized signs of any political, philosophical or religious beliefs.”

The Luxembourg-based EU judges already ruled in 2017 that internal company rules prohibiting the wearing of religious attire could be justified, but not if a company acted solely on the request of a customer.

The European Court of Human Rights has also weighed in on the debate over religious symbols in schools or at work, including in 2013 when it said a British Airways clerk was wrongfully sent home for wearing a cross at work.

The cases are: C-804/18 and C-341/19 WABE and MH Müller Handel.

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