The European Court of Justice ruled yesterday that it’s legal for private employers in the EU to ban women’s headscarves from the workplace. The decision stemmed from two cases in France and Belgium where women were dismissed from their jobs for wearing headscarves to work; one woman was fired for violating her company’s informal neutral dress policy, the other was asked to leave after a customer complained about her head covering.
The ECJ ruling did not issue an outright ban against headscarves but said employers could prohibit them as part of a broader effort to maintain an ideologically neutral workplace that disallows symbols of all religions.
The verdict conflicts with a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision regarding workplace discrimination. The U.S. court ruled 8-1 in favor of Samantha Elauf, a Muslim woman who filed suit against clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch after she was denied a job for wearing a headscarf, on the grounds that an employer can’t consider an applicant’s religious practice—confirmed or otherwise—in employment decisions.
The ECJ’s decision could fuel the anti-Islamic rhetoric of populist presidential candidates like France’s Marine Le Pen and the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders. Le Pen, who refused to don a headscarf while visiting Lebanon last month, has called for an outright ban on all religious symbols in public in France. Francois Fillon, French conservative presidential candidate, said the judgement “defends the secular nature of society and puts a stop to the pushing of religious interests.”
John Dalhuisen of Amnesty International, meanwhile, said yesterday’s ruling will “give greater leeway to employers to discriminate.”
“At a time when identity and appearance have become a political battleground,” Dalhuisen said, “people need more protection against prejudice, not less.”
The ECJ’s call for a uniform approach to religious symbolism in the workplace seems to be an attempt to tiptoe toward less contentious ground, but early responses to the ruling indicate that finding that territory—where all parties must agree on what ‘neutral’ means—is just as politically charged.
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