The EU’s highest court has ruled that government employers can ban the wearing of religious dress in the interest of maintaining an “entirely neutral administrative environment.” The decision came after a Muslim woman sued her municipal employer in Belgium for telling her to remove her hijab at work.
Published on Tuesday, the decision by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) stipulates that bans on the overt wearing of religious clothing are legal, provided that they apply to employees of all religions, and that enforcement is limited to “what is strictly necessary” to maintain an atmosphere of neutrality.
The court added that state authorities are also justified in allowing workers to wear symbols of religious or political belief, as long as their dress policies are applied indiscriminately.
The ruling only applies to backroom workers or those who do not normally interact with the public. In 2021, the same court ruled that women in public-facing roles could be fired for refusing to take off their headscarves.
The latest case was brought to the ECJ after a Muslim woman working in a local authority in the Belgian town of Ans was told she could not wear her hijab at work, even though her position rarely involved interaction with the public. She launched a legal challenge against the municipality, arguing that “discreet signs of conviction,” such as crucifix earrings, were tolerated.
The case made its way to a labor court in the city of Liege before it was kicked up to the Luxembourg-based ECJ. Last year, the court issued a similar ruling concerning private companies, in a case that was also brought by a Belgian Muslim.
The issue of allowing Islamic dress in the workplace has been a contentious one for years in Europe, as part of a broader debate on Muslim integration into traditionally Christian societies.
In France, which is home to the EU’s largest Muslim population, the constitution mandates the strict separation of government and religion. In 2004, the country banned the wearing of all Islamic head coverings in schools, following that decision with a ban on full face coverings such as the niqab and burqa in public places in 2010.
Since then, similar laws have been passed in Belgium, Denmark, Austria, the Netherlands, several states in Germany, Italy, Spain, and Switzerland, among others.