(REUTERS): Private employers in the EU can ban people from wearing religious symbols, including headscarves, the bloc’s highest court said in a ruling on two cases brought by women in Germany who were suspended from their jobs for wearing one.
The cases were brought by two German Muslim women, a special needs childcare worker and a sales assistant in a chemist. Both were told to remove their headscarves after deciding to wear the garments on their return to work after parental leave.
They were told that this was not allowed, and were at different points either suspended, told to come to work without it or put on a different job, court documents show. The EU court had to decide in both cases whether headscarf bans at work represented a violation of the freedom of religion or were allowed as part of the freedom.
“A prohibition on wearing any visible form of expression of political, philosophical or religious beliefs in the workplace may be justified by the employer’s need to present a neutral image towards customers or to prevent social disputes,” the court said, reaffirming a 2017 ruling.
The Luxembourg court said employers had to show a “genuine need” for the ban, such as “the legitimate wishes” of customers or users, or “the adverse consequences that that employer would suffer in the absence of that policy”.
It also said EU law allowed member states discretion in how to reconcile freedom of religion and freedom of thought and discrimination at work. The issue of the hijab has caused controversy across Europe for years and underlined sharp differences over integrating Muslims.
In both cases, it will now be up to national courts to have the final say on whether there was any discrimination.
The EU court already ruled in 2017 that companies may ban staff from wearing hijabs and other visible religious symbols under certain conditions. More than five million Muslims live in Germany, making them the largest religious minority group there.
France’s top court upheld in 2014 the dismissal of a Muslim day care worker for wearing a headscarf at a private crèche that demanded strict neutrality from employees. France, home to Europe’s largest Muslim minority, prohibited the wearing of hijabs in state schools in 2004.
However, Austria’s constitutional court has ruled that a law there banning girls aged up to 10 from wearing headscarves in schools was discriminatory.