Employers can stop staff from wearing religious symbols at work, the EU’s top court has ruled. Two cases were taken to the court by women in France and Belgium who were sacked for refusing to remove their headscarves.
The court ruled against them saying: ‘An internal rule of an undertaking which prohibits the visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious sign does not constitute direct discrimination.
‘However, in the absence of such a rule, the willingness of an employer to take account of the wishes of a customer no longer to have the employer’s services provided by a worker wearing an Islamic headscarf cannot be considered an occupational requirement that could rule out discrimination.’
However, it found that the French company that dismissed a software engineer for refusing to remove her headscarf may have breached EU laws barring discrimination on religious grounds if it did so not because of a general internal rule but just because a particular client objected.
The decision came on the eve of a Dutch election in which Muslim immigration has been a key issue and a bellwether for attitudes to migration and refugee policies across Europe.
Employers can sack workers for refusing to remove religious symbols
Two women lost their jobs because they refused to remove their headscarves (Picture: Getty)
The Islamic headscarf is a contentious issue in several European countries, notably France, which attaches importance to the separation of state and religious institutions and where the anti-immigration far-right National Front party is seen performing strongly in an election this spring.
The court’s ruling will consider the case of a Belgian woman working as a receptionist for G4S Secure Solutions, which has a general ban on wearing visible religious or political symbols.
The court’s advocate general last year recommended that companies should be allowed to prohibit headscarves as long as a general ban on other symbols was in place. Companies should though consider the conspicuousness of such symbols and the nature of the employee’s activities.
The court’s ruling will also cover a French IT consultant who was told to remove her headscarf after a client complained.
The advocate general’s advice in the French case was that a rule banning employees from wearing religious symbols when in contact with customers was discrimination, particularly when it only applied to Islamic headscarves.
An opinion of an advocate general is not binding but is followed by the court in the majority of cases.