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EU court rules that employers can ban Islamic headscarves

A European high court has ruled that employers may now prohibit employees wearing religious symbols, including headscarves. (Eric Risberg/The Associated Press)

The European Union's high court ruled on Tuesday that employers in Europe can ban their employees from wearing religious symbols, including an Islamic headscarf.

In its first decision regarding the issue of Islamic women wearing hijabs to work, the European Court of Justice determined in its ruling that banning visible religious symbols was not considered discriminatory as long as it was prohibited in the company's policies and procedures.

"An internal rule of an undertaking which prohibits the visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious sign does not constitute direct discrimination," the court said in its written decision.

But the court went on to clarify the ruling does not apply to circumstances in which customers ask that certain employees take off their headscarves if it is not the company's policy to ban religious symbols.

"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," it said.

While the ruling only applies to private businesses, the ECJ contended that employers who had a legitimate reason to maintain a neutral image could prohibit any political, philosophical or religious symbols displayed in the workplace as long as the policy did not single out any particular religion.

The high court took two particular cases into account to determine their ruling. One case involved a woman in Belgium who was fired after she began wearing a headscarf for religious reasons. Her employer said she broke "unwritten rules" prohibiting employees to wear religious symbols, according to The Guardian.

The second case involved a design engineer who was fired from an IT firm after a customer complained that his staff was “embarrassed” by her headscarf while she was visiting their workplace. She refused to remove her headscarf and was fired. She had allegedly been told before accepting the position that wearing a headscarf might be a problem for some customers.

The decision also comes as a victory for National Front, a far-right wing political party in Europe. National Front leader and leading French presidential contender Marine Le Pen has long been an advocate of banning hijabs, even cancelling a meeting last month with Lebanon's Grand Mufti after she was informed she would be required to wear a headscarf.

 

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