The European Court of Justice ruling on Tuesday was based on two cases in France and Belgium of Muslim women who wanted to wear their headscarves to work. The main question was how to interpret anti-discrimination and equal treatment policies of the EU.
The court said that employers may ban headscarves if the company has a general ban on “political, philosophical or religious” symbols, and if there is good reason for a ban.
The decision also clarified under what conditions a ban would be allowed. For the woman in Belgium, who worked as a receptionist at a security firm, the court said her case did not constitute “direct discrimination” as the company had a general rule against displaying religious symbols.
But for the woman in France, the court said a ban was not justified. The design engineer was fired after a company client complained about her headscarf. The court said that this situation “cannot be considered an occupational requirement that could rule out discrimination.”
German courts must now comply with this ruling.
Various Muslim and anti-discrimination groups have expressed their disappointment with the ruling.
“The European Court of Justice's ruling is, at its core, a departure from established civil rights,” said the Central Council of Muslims in Germany in a statement.
“When women must choose between their religious convictions and their professional occupations, that means that the bans on discrimination, principles of equal treatment and individual civil liberties – which form the foundations of European constitutions and legislation – are worth less than the paper on which they are written.
“This does not even correspond with the frequently invoked idea of neutrality.”
The Central Council of Muslims further noted that the decision could “open the door for Muslim women in Europe to be further subjected to discrimination and their complaints to be limited by law”.
Leader of the German government's Anti-Discrimination Agency, Christine Lüders, also said that the decision could make it more difficult for Muslim women to find a job.
“Freedom of faith and of conscience, and freedom to profess a religious or philosophical creed, shall be inviolable,” it states.
“The undisturbed practice of religion shall be guaranteed.”
But how this principle applies in the workplace has been fiercely debated in Germany.
This means that workplaces are prohibited from discriminating against someone on the basis of religion, and cannot generally ban someone from wearing a headscarf out of religious reasons. Still, courts have interpreted this differently in various rulings, some allowing certain limitations..
In 2002, the Federal Labour Court ruled in the case of a store saleswoman that she should not have been fired for wearing a headscarf.
Then in 2014, the same court ruled that church employers could forbid workers from wearing the Muslim headscarf.
And in 2015, the Constitutional Court found that general headscarf bans for teachers in state-funded schools were unconstitutional. The court said that headscarves should only be banned if they were found to “constitute a sufficiently specific danger of impairing the peace at school.”
The Constitutional Court reiterated this in a 2016 decision regarding a Muslim child care worker, stating that “an ‘Islamic headscarf’ is not uncommon in Germany.”
The court added that there was “no constitutional right to be spared from the awareness of other religious or ideological creeds”.
The Central Council of Muslims said they felt the EU ruling was in direct contradiction with the 2015 ruling regarding teachers.