EU employers can impose workplace ban on headscarves, Europe's top court rules

Ban on religious symbols is lawful as long as discrimination does not take place, judges say

A woman wearing the hijab walks through a city centre in France.
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Employers can impose a general workplace ban on religious, philosophical or spiritual symbols, including headscarves, as long as they do not single out one belief over another, the European Union’s top court has ruled.

Companies that decide to impose such bans cannot differentiate between religions or beliefs, or they risk violating EU equality law, the EU Court of Justice said on Thursday.

An employer who prohibits workers “from manifesting, through words, through clothing, or in any other way, their religious or philosophical beliefs, whatever those beliefs may be, does not constitute” direct discrimination, “provided that provision is applied in a general and undifferentiated way,” the Luxembourg-based Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) said.

The ruling follows on from a similar judgment last year which said that Islamic headscarves in the workplace could be banned provided such curbs are vital to show neutrality in the workplace and do not single out specific beliefs.

Thursday’s case was triggered by a dispute in Belgium in which a Muslim woman was told her application for an internship could only be accepted if she was willing to comply with the company’s neutrality rule and remove her headscarf at work.

The company said it had a neutrality rule, meaning no head covering was allowed on its premises, whether a cap, beanie or scarf.

The CJEU said there should not be any direct discrimination in such a ban.

Last year it said that EU companies could ban employees from wearing a headscarf under certain conditions, if they needed to do so to project an image of neutrality to customers.

In Germany, headscarf bans for women at work have been contentious for years, mostly with regard to aspiring teachers at state schools and trainee judges.

France, home to Europe's largest Muslim minority, prohibited the wearing of Islamic headscarves in state schools in 2004.

Updated: October 13, 2022, 12:22 PM