Amid rise of anti-veil legislation, European high court says employers can now ban headscarf at work

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Nayet (C), wearing a Burqa, and Kenza Drider (L), a French Muslim of North African descent, wearing a niqab, are seen after their release from a police station in Paris April 11, 2011. France's ban on full face veils, a first in Europe, went into force today, exposing anyone who wears the Muslim niqab or burqa in public to fines of 150 euros ($216) and lessons in French citizenship. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes (FRANCE - Tags: POLITICS RELIGION CRIME LAW) - RTR2L3TD

Nayet (C), wearing a Burqa, and Kenza Drider (L), a French Muslim of North African descent, wearing a niqab, are seen after their release from a police station in Paris April 11, 2011. France bans the burqa in public spaces. Credit: REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

Europe’s highest court ruled Tuesday that companies can ban employees from wearing religious garb, including hijabs, in the workplace.

The European Court of Justice said that employers banning the visible display of “any political, philosophical or religious sign does not constitute direct discrimination.”

The court said such rules do not amount to discrimination if the employer’s motivation is legitimate, such as the desire to “project an image of neutrality towards both its public and private sector customers.”

Sara Silvestri, a senior lecturer of international politics at the City University of London, said the court ruling is relatively narrow. It does not amount to a complete ban of hijabs in the workplace, she said, but does provide “ammunition” for employers who want to create workplaces without an open display of religious symbols.

“What it does is to clarify the scope of the law and provide the relevant lines of reasoning that the national courts will have to follow when they decide on the relevant court cases,” Silvestri wrote in an email to the the NewsHour.

The judicial ruling comes amid a rise of anti-veil legislation in Europe. In January, Austria moved to ban full-face veils, such as the burqa, in public. In February, the German state of Bavaria announced its intention to implement a ban on full-face veils from schools, government workplaces and voting areas. Various other European countries, including France and Belgium, already ban the burqa in public spaces.

“This does seem to fit with the political and emotional climate that is pervading Europe in terms of exclusivist, nationalist and anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim feelings,” said Silvestri, who studies the intersection of Islam politics and the European Union. “ I would be surprised if Dutch and French politicians currently involved in electoral campaigns did not exploit this ruling to further exacerbate people’s feelings and suspicion towards ‘the other’.”

Manfred Weber, a member of the European Parliament for the Christian Social Union in Bavaria welcomed the ruling. “European values must be valid in public life,” he tweeted.

The decision comes in response to the cases of two women who were dismissed from their respective jobs after they refused to stop wearing their headscarves at work.

In 2006, Samira Achbita informed her employer, security services company G4S in Belgium, that she intended to start wearing her hijab during work hours. But she was told that because of a neutrality agreement G4S had with its customers, she would be barred from doing so. G4S further implemented an amendment stating that “employees are prohibited, in the workplace, from wearing any visible signs of their political, philosophical or religious beliefs and/or from engaging in any observance of such beliefs.” She continued to wear the headscarf and was later fired.

In a separate instance, Asma Bougnaoui was dismissed after a client of her French employer, intelligence company Micropole, complained about her hijab. When she was hired, the company warned Bougnaoui that her headscarf might cause problems, but she was allowed to wear it until a complaint by a client. Micropole fired Bougnaoui after she refused to stop wearing the covering.

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