Headscarves can be banned in the workplace, says EU ruling

The EU's top court has ruled that employers have the right to prevent employees from wearing 'any political, philosophical, or religious sign' in the workplace.

Virginia Mayo/AP/File
Women gather during a 2009 demonstration in Antwerp, Belgium. Private businesses can forbid Muslim women in their employ from wearing headscarves as long as the ban is part of a blanket company policy and not a sign of prejudice against a particular religion, the European Court of Justice ruled on Tuesday, March 14, 2017.

In a conflict between freedom of religion and freedom to do business, the European Union’s highest court has ruled in favor of business. 

Considering the cases of two Muslim women, one from France and one from Belgium, fired for wearing headscarves, the court upheld companies’ right to establish internal bans on visible religious symbols, on the condition that such rules apply uniformly across all religions. The decision contrasts Europe’s brand of secularity with that of the United States, which protects the right to wear articles of faith in business and even the military.

Samira Achiba, the Belgian woman, worked for international security firm GS4, and was hired under a contract stipulating that employees not wear visible religious symbols. She did not wear a headscarf during the interview, but requested to start doing so a few years later, and was fired as a result.

Asma Bougnaoui interviewed for a French IT company Micropole while wearing a headscarf, which a client later complained about, asking that there be “no veil next time.” The company fired her when she refused to remove the scarf, despite no official prohibition against such symbols.

The court ruled in favor of GS4 and their fixed company policy, but against Micropole, arguing that employers may not base employment decisions on the religious wishes of a client, a decision some found contradictory.

"The court did say that employers are not at liberty to pander to the prejudices of their clients. But by ruling that company policies can prohibit religious symbols on the grounds of neutrality, they have opened a backdoor to precisely such prejudice," John Dalhuisen, director of Amnesty International's Europe and Central Asia program, told the BBC.

The decision hinges on such policies being “genuinely pursued in a consistent and systematic manner,” in such a way as they apply to all symbols such as Christian crosses and Jewish skullcaps as well, an interpretation that angered president of the Conference of European Rabbis, Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt: "This decision sends a signal to all religious groups in Europe."

But the question as to whether such rules impact the Muslim religion disproportionately will have to be settled by national courts. The Belgian court, for example, could still rule that Ms. Achiba was the victim of indirect discrimination.

Still, some worry that this ruling opens the door to unequal treatment of minorities across different members of the EU.

"In many member states, national laws will still recognize that banning religious headscarves at work is discrimination," Maryam Hmadoun, policy officer for the Open Society Justice Initiative, said to Reuters. "But in places where national law is weak, this ruling will exclude many Muslim women from the workplace."

While the United States has had its fair share of conflict regarding the treatment of immigrants, the wearing of headscarves (or crosses or skullcaps) at work has been established as a religious right.

In 2015, Samantha Elauf accused clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch of rejecting her job application because her headscarf prevented her from adopting the company’s dress code, and the Supreme Court ruled in her favor.

“Religious practice is one of the protected characteristics that ... must be accommodated,” wrote Justice Antonin Scalia in the majority decision.

Other recent debates have had similar outcomes, such as the court confirming Muslim men’s right to grow a beard in prison, and the US Army granting some Sikhs the right to sport camouflage turbans and beards.

Meanwhile, Europe’s position on the topic of such articles of faith continues to evolve in each of its member states. France in particular has gained notoriety for a 2004 ban on headscarves in public schools, a 2010 ban on face veils altogether, and a debate over the full-body “burkini” swimsuit last summer.

This report contains material from Reuters.

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