It’s OK to ban wearing religious symbols at work, EU top court rules

The EU’s top court on Tuesday ruled that a public administration may ban staff from visibly wearing any sign which reveals philosophical or religious beliefs, in order to create a “neutral administrative environment.”

“Such a rule is not discriminatory if it is applied in a general and indiscriminate manner to all of that administration’s staff and is limited to what is strictly necessary,” the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) said, according to 1/cp230181en.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener">a press release issued Tuesday.

The ruling refers to the case of a woman from the municipality of Ans in Belgium who took her grievance to a local court, claiming her freedom of religion had been infringed and that she was the victim of discrimination after she was prohibited from wearing an Islamic headscarf in her workplace. After the headscarf decision, the municipality altered its terms of employment to prohibit all workers from wearing overt signs of ideological or religious affiliation.

A court in Liège asked the top court whether this strict neutrality rule imposed by the municipality rose to discrimination contrary to EU law.

The rule “may be regarded as being objectively justified by a legitimate aim,” the court said, but added that an opposite policy authorizing the wearing of religious symbols would also be justified.

“Each Member State, and any infra-State body within the framework of its competences, has a margin of discretion in designing the neutrality of the public service which it intends to promote in the workplace, depending on its own context,” the court said.

The court added: “However, that objective must be pursued in a consistent and systematic manner, and the measures adopted to achieve it must be limited to what is strictly necessary. It is for the national courts to verify that those requirements are complied with.”

In October last year, the EU court also ruled that internal laws by an employer prohibiting the visible wearing of all religious, philosophical or spiritual signs at work does not constitute direct discrimination, in a dispute between a Muslim woman and a Belgian company over its headscarf policy.