EU court rules against headscarves if employers ban all religious symbols
PARIS, France — The European Union Court of Justice has made a decision in favor of a headscarf ban in workplaces. They said that private businesses can forbid female Muslim employees from wearing their headscarves. However, they can only do this if the company has a policy that prohibits all religious symbols. Companies cannot ban the headscarves in order to target a particular religion, according to the court.
The court decided that such a ban is not what it calls "direct discrimination." Direct discrimination is when a group of people is treated unfairly because of their specific background or beliefs.
The European Union Court of Justice is the highest court in the 28-nation European Union. The European Union works together in trade and economic matters, and all members must follow EU law. The Court of Justice makes decisions about these laws. It also offers advice to the supreme courts of member countries.
Decision Based On Cases Brought By Women Who Were Fired
The decision of the court was in response to two cases. One was brought by a Belgian woman and the other by a French woman. Both women were fired for refusing to remove their headscarves. It makes clear that the bans some countries have on religious symbols in classrooms can also be applied to the workplace.
The court's response fed right into the French presidential campaign, boosting the platforms of Marine Le Pen. She is a leading candidate in the spring presidential election. Le Pen belongs to a political party that is against immigration and wants to make stricter laws with harsh punishments. She wants to do away with all religious symbols.
France already bans headscarves and other religious symbols in classrooms as well as face-covering veils in streets.
Critics Of Ban Are Concerned About Unfair Treatment
Critics quickly voiced their fears. They are concerned that the decision will be a setback to all working Muslim women. They believe it will allow employers to treat people unfairly based on their religious beliefs and appearance.
"Today's disappointing rulings ... give greater leeway to employers to discriminate against women — and men — on the grounds of religious belief," said a statement by the human rights group Amnesty International. "At a time when identity and appearance has become a political battleground, people need more protection against prejudice, not less."
Georgina Siklossy works at the European Network Against Racism in Belgium. She expressed concern about the effects the ban will have on Muslim women and other minority populations in Europe. It might force many of them to choose between working and wearing religious clothing. Another disappointed group is the Open Society Justice Initiative. They work with lawyers and courts to promote human rights and more tolerant societies.
The group's policy officer, Maryam Hmadoum, argued that the decision goes against the EU's long-standing guarantee of equality. The Court of Justice pointed to this promise in weighing the cases.
Two Cases Differed In Terms Of Why The Women Were Fired
The EU Court of Justice made separate decisions on the cases but linked them in the end. They were referred to the Court of Justice by the lower courts of Cassation in Belgium and France. The courts of Cassation are the highest courts in the individual countries, like the Supreme Court in the United States.
In the Belgian case, Samira Achbita was a receptionist at a security firm. She was fired in June 2006, for wearing an Islamic headscarf. The headscarf was banned in a new set of rules at her company that prohibited visible signs of political, religious or philosophical beliefs. Belgium's Court of Cassation sought more help from the higher Court of Justice.
The French case is a bit different. Asma Bougnaoui was fired not because of company rules but because a customer complained about being unhappy with Bougnaoui's headscarf.
The court said that an employer's desire to take into account the wishes of a customer does not qualify under their new ruling.
"The question asked was, 'Is it enough for a client to say "it bothers me that you are sending me a veiled employee"?' ... The (court) answered, 'No, this is not enough,'" said Bougnaoui's lawyer, Waquet.
Although France and Belgium went to the Court of Justice for help, the home courts must still rule on each case.