POLITICS & INSTITUTIONS - JUSTICE

Labour law

Companies can ban headscarf at work, under certain conditions, says EU court



The European Court of Justice ruled, on 15 July 2021, that employers can restrict religious clothing in the workplace when there is a legitimate reason. Library picture: Two women are seen wearing a headscarf in the Netherlands, 2016. Photo credit: Shutterstock/Ruud Morijn

The European Court of Justice ruled, on 15 July 2021, that employers can restrict religious clothing in the workplace when there is a legitimate reason. Library picture: Two women are seen wearing a headscarf in the Netherlands, 2016. Photo credit: Shutterstock/Ruud Morijn

Employers may prohibit staff from wearing religious attire in order to maintain a neutral image, the EU’s top court has ruled.

Bosses can ban employees from displaying “any visible sign of political, philosophical or religious beliefs in the workplace” if it is “strictly necessary”, fairly applied and coherent with an EU member state’s “specific context”, the European Court of Justice said this week.

The ruling stemmed from a pair of cases filed by two separate women in Germany, a special needs caregiver and a retail cashier. Both had started wearing an Islamic headscarf at work, and both of their employers had asked them to remove their headscarves and took formal action against them. Both women lodged separate legal complaints against their employers.

As part of those proceedings, Hamburg Labour Court and Germany’s Federal Labour Court asked the ECJ, in Kirchberg, if “prohibiting workers from wearing any visible sign of political, philosophical or religious beliefs in the workplace constitutes... direct or indirect discrimination”, per court documents.

Ban justified under certain conditions

On Thursday, ECJ judges ruled that company policies banning religious symbols “may be justified.”

Employers must demonstrate a “genuine need” such as “the rights and legitimate wishes of customers or users and, more specifically, as regards education, parents’ wish to have their children supervised by persons who do not manifest their religion or belief when they are in contact with the children.”

The policies must be applied neutrally and across the board, the judges indicated. The court said: “In the present case, the rule at issue appears to have been applied in a general and undifferentiated way, since the employer concerned also required an employee wearing a religious cross to remove that sign.”

However, the ECJ noted that national courts considering workplace prohibition cases must take “the specific context of each member state” into account.

Both matters now return to their respective German courts for final adjudication.

The joined cases were C-804/18 and C-341/19 WABE and MH Müller Handel.