Private employers in the EU can ban people from wearing religious symbols, including headscarves, in order to present an image of neutrality, the bloc’s highest court has ruled.
Companies can ban headscarves provided such a prohibition is part of a policy against all religious and political symbols, the court said on Thursday, reaffirming a 2017 ruling. The latest judgment went further by examining the grounds employers can use when making such prohibitions.
The ban on religious and political symbols can be justified by the “employer’s desire to pursue a policy of political, philosophical and religious neutrality with regard to its customers or users, in order to take account of their legitimate wishes”, the court said in a statement.
The cases were brought by two German Muslim women, a special needs childcare worker and a sales assistant in a chemist. Both were told to remove their headscarves after deciding to wear the garments on their return to work after parental leave.
The childcare centre banned staff from wearing any religious symbols, including the Christian cross and the Jewish kippah. It suspended the woman twice and issued a written warning, which she challenged in the German courts.
The drugstore informed its employee not to wear conspicuous political, philosophical or religious signs. She refused and went to court, stating that she regarded the head covering as mandatory under her religion.
The German courts referred the cases to the European court of justice to seek guidance on the EU’s equal treatment in employment directive.
The Luxembourg court said employers had to show a “genuine need” for the ban, such as “the legitimate wishes” of customers or users, or “the adverse consequences that that employer would suffer in the absence of that policy”.
It also said EU law allowed member states discretion in how to reconcile freedom of religion and freedom of thought and discrimination at work.
The EU court’s 2017 ruling on headscarves was seen as contradicting a ruling from the European court of human rights in 2013 that allowed crosses to be worn at work. The ECHR is not an EU court, although all EU member states have signed the underpinning European convention on human rights.