A human rights group has warned that Muslim women could be excluded from certain jobs in Europe after the EU’s top court ruled they can be banned from wearing hijabs while at work.
The case was brought by two Muslim women in Germany, one a special needs carer and the other a beauty shop cashier, who were suspended after they started wearing a headscarf.
They did not wear one when they started their jobs, but decided to embrace the garment after returning from parental leave years later.
According to court documents, each was told they were not allowed to wear it before being sent home and told to come back without it on or find another job.
The Luxembourg-based EU Court of Justice (CJEU) had to decide whether banning headscarves impinged on people’s freedom of religion or was permissible as part of the freedom to conduct a business and the wish to project an image of neutrality to customers.
It ruled that such bans are allowed if justified by an employer’s need to present a neutral image.
The court said: ‘A prohibition on wearing any visible form of expression of political, philosophical or religious beliefs in the workplace may be justified by the employer’s need to present a neutral image towards customers or to prevent social disputes.
‘However, that justification must correspond to a genuine need on the part of the employer and, in reconciling the rights and interests at issue, the national courts may take into account the specific context of their Member State and, in particular, more favourable national provisions on the protection of freedom of religion.’
In the case of the care centre employee, the court said the rule had been applied across the board, with another employee told to remove their religious cross.
It will now be up to national courts to have the final say on whether it is discriminatory.
The EU court had already ruled in 2017 that companies may ban staff from wearing Islamic headscarves and other visible religious symbols under certain conditions, upsetting faith groups.
The Open Society Justice Initiative said it was concerned the ruling ‘may continue to exclude many Muslim women, and those of other religious minorities, from various jobs in Europe’.
Employers should tread carefully as ‘they risk being found liable for discrimination … if they can’t demonstrate a genuine need for a religious dress ban’, one of its representatives, Maryam H’madoun, said in a statement.
Headscarf bans for women at work have been contentious in Germany for years, mostly with regard to aspiring teachers at state schools and trainee judges.
This has not been a big theme in the campaign for legislative elections this year in Germany, where more than five million Muslims comprise the largest religious minority group.
Elsewhere in Europe, courts have also had to look into where and how headscarves can sometimes be banned at work.
In 2014, France’s top court upheld the dismissal of a Muslim day care worker for wearing a headscarf at a private creche that demanded strict neutrality from employees.
The country is home to Europe’s largest Muslim minority, but prohibited the wearing of Islamic headscarves in state schools in 2004.
Austria’s constitutional court has ruled that a law there banning girls aged up to 10 from wearing headscarves in schools was discriminatory.
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