The European Union’s highest court ruled Tuesday that companies may prohibit staff from wearing Islamic headscarves and other visible religious symbols under certain conditions.
The decision sparked a firestorm of criticism from religious leaders and rights groups.
In its first ruling on a contentious political issue across Europe, the Court of Justice decided that a Belgian firm which had a rule prohibiting employees who dealt with customers from wearing visible religious and political symbols might not have discriminated against a receptionist terminated for wearing a headscarf.
The decision was handed down, as well as one in a similar French case, on the eve of the Dutch election in which Muslim immigration is a seminal issue. The French presidential campaign has a similar focus and French conservative candidate Francois Fillon called the ruling “an immense relief” that would contribute to “social peace.”
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Conversely, a rights group supporting the women claimed that the ruling could exclude many Muslim females from the workforce. European rabbis accused the Court of fomenting hate crime and sending a message that “faith communities are no longer welcome.”
The judges in Luxembourg ruled that the termination of the two women might have breached EU laws forbidding religious discrimination, depending on the view of national courts. The court found that there might have been discrimination in the case of the French software engineer who was fired following a customer complaint.
Criticism stemmed largely from the court’s conclusion that Belgium services firm G4S was entitled to terminate receptionist Samira Achbita in 2006 if, while pursuing legitimate business interests, it fairly applied a broad dress code for all customer-facing staff to convey an image of political and religious neutrality.
The Open Society Justice Initiative, a group backed by billionaire leftist George Soros, claimed that the ruling “weakens the guarantee of equality” assured by EU non-discrimination laws.
“In many member states, national laws will still recognize that banning religious headscarves at work is discrimination,” policy officer Maryam Hmadoun said.
Regarding the French case, Amnesty International applauded the ruling’s assertion that “employers are not at liberty to pander to the prejudices of their clients.” The organization claimed that bans on religious symbols to show neutrality opened “a backdoor to precisely such prejudice.”
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