Companies may ban Muslim employees from wearing a headscarf under certain conditions, the European Union’s top court said on Thursday, in two cases brought by Muslim women in Germany who were suspended from their jobs after they started wearing the Islamic garment.
“A prohibition 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 customers or to prevent social disputes,” the court said.
“However, that justification must correspond to a genuine need on the part of the employer and, in reconciling the rights and interests at issue, the national courts may take into account the specific context of their Member State and, in particular, more favourable national provisions on the protection of freedom of religion.”
Both Muslim women – a special need carer at a childcare center in Hamburg run by a charitable association, and a cashier at the Mueller drugstore chain – had not been wearing headscarves when they started in their jobs, but decided to do so years later after coming back from parental leave.
They were told by their respective employer that this was not allowed, and were at different points either suspended, told to come to work without it or put on a different job, court documents show.
The issue of the hijab – the traditional headscarf worn round the head and shoulders – has sparked controversy across Europe for years and underlined sharp divisions over integrating Muslims.
In a 2017 ruling, the EU court in Luxembourg had already said that companies may ban staff from wearing Islamic headscarves and other visible religious symbols under certain conditions. At the time, this had sparked a huge backlash among faith groups.
Photo: The sign of the Court of Justice of the European Union at the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in Luxembourg. EPA-EFE/JULIEN WARNAND