EU companies can ban employees from wearing religious or political symbols, such as the Islamic headscarf, the bloc’s top court ruled today in a landmark case. The European Court of Justice said it does not constitute “direct discrimination” if a firm has an internal rule banning the wearing of “any political, philosophical or religious sign.”
The wearing of religious symbols, and especially Islamic symbols such as the headscarf, has become a hot button issue with the rise of populist sentiment across Europe, with some countries such as Austria considering a complete ban on the full-face veil in public.
The ECJ was ruling on a case dating to 2003 when Samira Achbita, a Muslim, was employed as a receptionist by G4S security services in Belgium.
At the time, the company had an “unwritten rule” that employees should not wear any political, religious or philosophical symbols at work, the ECJ said. In 2006, Achbita told G4S she wanted to wear the Islamic headscarf at work but was told this would not be allowed.
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Subsequently, the company introduced a formal ban. Achbita was dismissed and she went to court claiming discrimination.
The ECJ said that European Union law does bar discrimination on religious grounds but that G4S’s actions were based on treating all employees the same, meaning no one person was singled out for application of the ban.
“The rule thus treats all employees of the undertaking in the same way, notably by requiring them, generally and without any differentiation, to dress neutrally,” the ECJ said.
“Accordingly, such an internal rule does not introduce a difference of treatment that is directly based on religion or belief,” it said.