ECJ sees no discrimination: Authorities may ban wearing headscarves on duty

ECJ sees no discrimination
Authorities may ban wearing headscarves on duty

Anyone who works in administration wearing a headscarf or other religious symbols may face a ban. This emerges from a ruling by the European Court of Justice. In this case, however, certain conditions apply.

Authorities may ban their employees from wearing a headscarf or other visible signs of religious belief at work, according to a ruling by the European Court of Justice (ECJ). Such a rule is not discriminatory as long as it serves to create a “completely neutral administrative environment” and is applied “generally and indiscriminately to all staff,” the Luxembourg court ruled. The condition is also that it is limited to what is “absolutely necessary”.

The ECJ ruled in a case from Belgium. The city of Ans had banned a Muslim employee from wearing a headscarf while working in the public service, and the woman sued the labor court in Liège for discrimination and violation of her religious freedom. This referred the case to the ECJ in order to bring about fundamental clarification.

The Luxembourg judges made it clear that such a ban within a public administration was considered “objectively justified” under EU law in the sense of enforcing a “policy of strict neutrality” for all employees. However, other rules are also permitted. EU member states and their subordinate state units generally have “leeway” in the design of neutrality in the public service in specific workplaces.

The court emphasized that a public administration could limit the ban on the visible wearing of signs of religious beliefs to workplaces with public access or generally allow this for its employees. From the perspective of EU law, however, it is crucial that the goal is pursued “in a coherent and systematic manner” and that the measures taken are limited to “what is absolutely necessary”. The national courts must examine whether these requirements are met.

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