Employers can ban Muslim headscarf, European court rules

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

"Today's disappointing rulings by the European Court of Justice give greater leeway to employers to discriminate against women - and men - on the grounds of religious belief".

This controversial ruling has prompted much debate over whether it would be as severely enforced for all religious symbols or end up only affecting Muslim women wearing headscarves.

Asma Bougnaoui was sacked from French IT firm Micropole after customers complained about her wearing of a headscarf while she was giving advice on their premises.

The Luxembourg-based court was considering the case of a Muslim woman fired by security company G4S after she insisted on wearing a headscarf. "What is nearly certainly never OK is for an employer to tell an employee to stop wearing a religious symbol because a particular customer has asked for it".

"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". The court ruled that the firm was not guilty of discrimination, said a Reuters report. The judgment applies only to direct discrimination, but a company policy which universally disallows the visible manifestation of religious belief may be indirectly discriminatory.

'On the question that was raised by the Belgian Supreme Court, whether the neutrality policy constituted direct discrimination based on religion, the court has now ruled that this is not the case and it will now be referred back to the Belgian Supreme Court.

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However, the European Court cautioned that the employer's means of achieving this legitimate aim must be appropriate and necessary. But it says the ban must be part of a policy of neutrality within the company and not a sign of prejudice against a particular religion.

The court ruled that the Frenchwoman had suffered discrimination and that customers' wishes did not give companies an excuse from complying with European Union anti-discrimination law.

In both cases, the ECJ suggested that national courts needed to investigate further.

The Open Society Justice Initiative, a group backed by the philanthropist George Soros which had supported the women, said it was disappointed by the ruling which it said "weakens the guarantee of equality that is at the heart of the EU's anti-discrimination directive".

In 2013, Nadia Eweida, a British Airways Christian worker, suffered discrimination at work because of her Christian beliefs, the EU Court of Human Rights ruled.

French conservative presidential candidate Marine Le Pen has said she wants to ban all "ostentatious" religious symbols in France.

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