Europe

Reality Check: Did EU court ban Islamic headscarf at work?

“This ruling will exclude many Muslim women from the workplace” Maryam Hmadoun, policy officer, Open Society Justice Initiative

The claim: The ruling by the EU's top court could exclude many Muslim women from the workplace.

Reality Check verdict: The EU court ruling does allow private companies to adopt rules that bar workers from wearing religious symbols under certain conditions but is not a blanket ban on Islamic headscarves.

On Tuesday, the European Court of Justice, the EU's top court, ruled that a Belgium firm was within its rights to dismiss an employee who began wearing an Islamic headscarf to work on the grounds that the head covering was against company rules on appearance in a public-facing role.

The court ruled in favour of the company because it had an "image neutrality" policy prohibiting the wearing of any religious clothing or symbols. Furthermore, the policy was, in the court's view, "genuinely pursued in a consistent and systematic manner".

Tuesday's ruling included a judgement on another related case which concerned a woman in France who refused to take off her headscarf at a private company, after a client objected to her wearing it. In this instance, the court ruled that she had been discriminated against as the company had no "image neutrality" policy and only dismissed her following the client's complaint.

EU laws prohibit companies, private or public, discriminating on the grounds of sex, race, colour, ethnic or social origin, genetic features, language, religion or belief, political or any other opinion, membership of a national minority, property, birth, disability, age or sexual orientation.

Indirect discrimination, where rules set by a company may disadvantage a certain group, is also prohibited, unless there is a specific justification such as a company wishing to project a "neutral" image.

In the Belgian case, the ECJ ruling says that because the company's work appearance rules were written and shared among employees the action was justified.

Ultimately, the final judgement on the ECJ ruling will rest with the courts in France and Belgium.

The Open Society Justice Initiative, a group backed by financier George Soros, which supported the two women at the centre of this case, said the ruling "weakens the guarantee of equality that is at the heart of the EU's anti-discrimination directive" and will "exclude many Muslim women from the workplace".

Prof Takis Tridimas from King's College, London, an expert in European law, said the ruling might allow employers to prevent some people wearing religious clothing at work in certain roles. However, the ruling is "not specific to any particular religion".

Wearing an Islamic headscarf, as well as all other religious symbols, is already prohibited in France in public service jobs, even when employees are not in direct contact with the public.

In Belgium, there are no federal rules on religious symbols at work, but the regional parliaments have taken measure to prohibit religious, political or philosophical symbols for public service workers who deal with the public.

Other EU countries, such as the UK, do not have such rules.

A number of EU countries have also taken measures to ban the full Islamic veil, which covers the face, in all public spaces.


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