European court declares headscarf may be banned at work under certain conditions

The entrance to the European Court of Justice is pictured in Luxembourg, January 26, 2017. Photo taken on January 26, 2017. REUTERS / François Lenoir

BRUSSELS, July 15 (Reuters) – Companies can ban Muslim workers from wearing headscarves under certain conditions, the EU’s highest court said on Thursday in a ruling in two cases brought by women in Germany that were suspended from their job to wear one.

The issue of the hijab, the traditional scarf worn around the head and shoulders, has sparked controversy across Europe for years and has highlighted strong differences over the integration of Muslims.

In the cases brought to court, the two Muslim women – a childminder at a Hamburg daycare center run by a charity and a cashier for the Mueller drugstore chain – did not wear a headscarf when they started their work, but decided to do so years later after returning from parental leave.

They were told this was not allowed and that at different times they were either suspended, or asked to work without it, or assigned to other work, according to court documents.

The European Court had to decide in both cases whether the bans on wearing the headscarf at work constituted a violation of the freedom of religion or were authorized within the framework of the freedom of enterprise and the desire to project an image of neutrality among client.

His response was that such bans were possible if justified by an employer’s need to present a neutral image.

“A ban 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 clients or to prevent social conflicts”, declared the court.

However, this justification must correspond to a real need on the part of the employer, he said.

In the case of the care center employee, the court said the rule at issue appeared to have been applied broadly and undifferentiatedly, since the employer also required that an employee wearing a religious cross remove this sign.

In both cases, it will now be for the national courts to have the final say on the existence of discrimination.

The EU court had already ruled in 2017 that companies could ban staff from wearing Islamic headscarves and other visible religious symbols under certain conditions, sparking a backlash between faith groups.

Over 5 million Muslims live in Germany, making it the largest minority religious group.

The ban on headscarves for working women has been a hotly debated issue in Germany for years, mainly with regard to future teachers in public schools and trainee judges. This has so far not been a major theme in the campaign for this year’s parliamentary elections.

Elsewhere in Europe, courts have also had to consider where and how the headscarf can sometimes be banned at work.

The highest French court confirmed in 2014 the dismissal of a Muslim childminder for wearing a headscarf in a private nursery which required strict neutrality on the part of the employees. France, home to the largest Muslim minority in Europe, banned the wearing of the Islamic headscarf in public schools in 2004.

However, the Austrian Constitutional Court ruled that a law prohibiting girls up to 10 years of age from wearing headscarves in schools was discriminatory.

Reporting by Sabine Siebold and Ingrid Melander; Editing by Angus MacSwan

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