On Tuesday, a 15-judge panel of the European Court of Justice ruled that private employers are allowed to ban their employees from wearing visible religious symbols, including Muslim headscarves like the hijab or khimar.
In its ruling, the EU court said that banning a Muslim headscarf didn’t constitute “direct discrimination based on religion or belief” if the company had an internal rule banning “any political, philosophical or religious sign.”
In other words: a European company can ban women from wearing headscarves for religious reasons — if it also bans, say, necklaces that depict the Christian cross.
No official policy on religious symbols, no ban
The important point: If a company doesn’t already have an internal policy on religious symbols, it cannot force its employees to take off their headscarves.
The issue of headscarves came under ECJ jurisdiction after top courts in France and Belgium asked for advice on how to handle the cases of two Muslim women seeking to wear headscarves at work.
In Belgium, receptionist Samira Achbita was fired after more than three years at G4S when she wore a headscarf to work. G4S had an official policy that required “neutral” dress when an employer had a role dealing with customers.
The ECJ ruled that G4s was within its rights to dismiss Achbita because it had an official “image neutrality” policy in place before it made its decision to fire her.
In France, design engineer Asma Bougnaoui, was fired by her firm Micropole SA after a customer complained that his staff had been “embarrassed” by her headscarf.
Here, ECJ ruled that an employee cannot be fired because of a customer complaint.
In short, if the ban is part of a consistent internal policy and not just a one-off result of one complaint, it’s now allowed.
Belgium does not have federal rules banning religious symbols at work. Meanwhile, France already bans workers from wearing any religious symbol in public sector jobs under the country’s rule of laïcité, or secularism, although it is rarely enforced.
The ruling immediately alarmed anti-discrimination groups. The European Network Against Racism said the landmark ruling was “dangerous” over its definition of who or what gets to be considered “neutral.”
Spokeswoman Jilly Pascoet told BuzzFeed News, “We believe neutrality is in the service you are giving and the way you doing your job, and not because of your appearance.”
Workers can still wear religious symbols in the U.S.
The U.S. currently bans workplace religious discrimination.
Under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, U.S. employers cannot fire or refuse to hire, or discipline a person because of religious practices like wearing a hijab, unless the employer can show that it offered a “reasonabl[e] accommodat[ion].”
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission also notes that employers cannot show “disparate treatment” or retaliate against any employee who wears religious garb or complains about religious discrimination in the workplace.
There’s no guarantee, however, that those laws or rules will remain in place; as is the case with all legislation, those rules can be changed by Congress and the White House.