Top EU court to give first ruling on Islamic headscarf bans

Woman in burka

However, while the ECJ did state that a rule banning workers from outwardly wearing their "political, philosophical or religious beliefs in the workplace" is not directly discriminatory (because it applies to all employees), this alone does not quite reflect the outcome of the case.

But the ban must be based on internal company rules requiring all employees to "dress neutrally", the European Court of Justice (ECJ) said.

The case was then referred to the European Court of Justice for clarification on what is banned by EU anti-discrimination laws.

Following a case brought before the European Courts of Justice by a receptionist in Belgian who was sacked for wearing a headscarf, advocate general Julianne Kokott determined that, while an employee can't "leave" their sex, skin colour, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age or disability at home, they can be expected to "moderate the exercise of they religion in the workplace". In the second case, another Muslim woman - Asma Bougnaoui - was sacked from a tech consultancy firm after a customer said his employees were "embarrassed" by the hijab she wore while giving them a presentation.

The case was initially brought by two women, from Belgium and France, who had been banned from wearing headscarves in the workplace.

That was the ruling of the European Union's top court today (14 March).

"It is not evident from the material in the file available to the Court that that internal rule was applied differently to Ms. Achbita as compared to other G4S employees", they said in their ruling.

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While non-binding, the ruling comes just before elections in Europe in which mass immigration from Muslim countries is a major issue. The company had told her previously that it operated on a policy of neutrality which prohibited all signs of political, philosophical or religious affiliations.

However, the court ruled in the second case that an employer could not cite customers' preferences not to be served by a worker in a headscarf as way to avoid discrimination law.

In June 2006, Achbita was dismissed because of her continuing insistence on wearing the headscarf at work.

The case was heard by the grand chamber of 15 judges at the court in Luxembourg.

Nonetheless, rights group Amnesty International criticizes the ECJ for having opened a "backdoor to prejudice".

"A ban on religious and political symbols feels to me as a disguised ban on the hijab", Warda el-Kaddouri, a columnist for a Belgian newspaper, told Al Jazeera from Brussels.

If her dismissal was based only on meeting a particular customer's preference, it saw "only very limited circumstances" in which a religious symbol could be objectively taken as reason for her not to work.

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