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In headscarf ruling, EU court allows religious symbol bans

The European Court of Justice has ruled that companies can ban employees from wearing the Islamic headscarf and other religious symbols. It is the first case of its kind amid a series of legal disputes over the right for Muslim woman to wear the hijab at work.

The court, based in Luxembourg, said a workplace ban “does not constitute direct discrimination”.

The ECJ said in a statement: “An internal rule of an undertaking which prohibits the visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious sign does not constitute direct discrimination.

“However, in the absence of such a rule, the willingness of an employer to take account of the wishes of a customer no longer to have the employer’s services provided by a worker wearing an Islamic headscarf cannot be considered an occupational requirement that could rule out discrimination.”

The headscarf is a contentious issue in a number of European countries. France, in particular, attaches importance to the separation of Church and State.

To ensure full participation of citizens within the EU, including economic life, the EU’s Directive 200/78 prohibits “any direct or indirect” discrimination.

The directive stems from the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights adopted in 2000 as well as its much older Convention on Fundamental Rights and Freedoms dating back to Rome in 1950.

Article 9 of the 1950 convention says everyone has the right to “manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.”

Article 10 of the younger charter also underpins the right to religious practice but in Article 16 it also states that enterprises have the “freedom to conduct a business in accordance with Union law and national laws.”

The court ruled on cases brought by a French woman and Belgian woman, who had refused to remove their headscarves at work.

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