Top EU Court says employers may ban headscarves at work

Companies may ban Muslim employees from wearing a headscarf under certain conditions, the European Union’s top court ruled on Thursday. 

“A prohibition on wearing any visible form of expression of political, philosophical, or religious beliefs in the workplace may be justified by the employer’s need to present a neutral image toward customers or to prevent social disputes,” the Court of Justice (ECJ) said.

“However, that justification must correspond to a genuine need on the part of the employer and, in reconciling the rights and interests at issue, the national courts may take into account the specific context of their Member State and, in particular, more favorable national provisions on the protection of freedom and religion,” the court added.

Cases were brought to the EU’s high court by two Muslim women from Germany who had both been suspended from their jobs for wearing a hijab. One woman worked as a special needs caretaker at a childcare center in Hamburg run by a charitable association, while the other worked as a cashier at the Mueller drugstore chain. Neither had been wearing headscarves when they applied for and began their jobs, but both decided to do so years later after returning from parental leave. 

Their respective employers told both women that headscarves were not allowed and were at different times suspended and told to come to work without it or get a different job, court documents show. In the child care center employee case, the ECJ ruled that the headscarf ban was applied in a non-discriminatory fashion as another employee was asked to remove a religious cross they were wearing. Many activists, however, are describing the ECJ’s ruling as discriminatory and islamophobic. 

“Today’s ECJ ruling on the hijab is latest in a string upholding companies’ rights to not employ Muslim women if they think it’s bad for their business,” Mehreen Khan, an EU correspondent, said in a statement. “ECJ suggests that if customers or clients of a company say they don’t want to see Muslim women in such jobs, that is also fine.”

“My hijab isn’t making you uncomfortable,” Johana Bhuiyan, a Buzzfeed contributor, tweeted. “Your racism and xenophobia is making you uncomfortable with my hijab.”

Johana Bhuiyan on Twitter: “My hijab isn’t making you uncomfortable, your racism and xenophobia is making you uncomfortable with my hijab.” / Twitter

Donald Trump was a frequent critic of the EU, calling them “one of the biggest foes of the U.S.” throughout his presidency. Joe Biden, however, has taken a different approach and was welcomed warmly by EU officials in May at the summer summit. 

“We are happy that Joe Biden is here,” a top EU official said in May. “We have recreated a link.”