Companies may ban staff from wearing Islamic headscarves and other visible religious symbols under certain conditions, the European Union's top court ruled on Tuesday, setting off a storm of complaints from rights groups and religious leaders.
In its first ruling on an issue that has become highly charged across Europe, the Court of Justice (ECJ) found a Belgian firm, which had a rule that employees who dealt with customers should not wear visible religious or political symbols, did not discriminate against a Muslim receptionist who was dismissed for wearing a headscarf.
French conservative candidate, Francois Fillon, hailed the ECJ ruling as "an immense relief" to companies and workers that would contribute to "social peace".
This comes weeks before a charged presidential vote in France, where headscarves are banned in public service jobs.
A group backing the fired employee said the ruling may shut many Muslim women out of the workforce. European rabbis said the Court had added to rising incidences of hate crime to send a message that “faith communities are no longer welcome”.
The judges in Luxembourg concluded that Belgian services firm, G4S, was entitled to dismiss receptionist Samira Achbita in 2006 if, in pursuit of legitimate business interests, it fairly applied a broad dress code for all customer-facing staff to project an image of political and religious neutrality.
The Open Society Justice Initiative, a group backed by the philanthropist George Soros, said the ruling "weakens the guarantee of equality" offered by EU laws.
Maryam Hmadoun, policy officer, Open Society Justice InitiativeIn places where national law is weak, this ruling will exclude many Muslim women from the workplace.
National court cases across Europe have included questions on the wearing of Christian crosses, Sikh turbans and Jewish skullcaps. In the Belgian case, the ECJ said:
An internal rule of an undertaking which prohibits the visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious sign does not constitute direct discrimination.
It was for Belgian judges to determine whether Achbita may have been a victim of indirect discrimination if the rule put people of a particular faith at a disadvantage.
But the rule could still be justified if it was "genuinely pursued in a consistent and systematic manner" to project an "image of neutrality".
The verdict came simultaneously with a ruling in a French case. The court determined that the case of the French engineer, Asma Bougnaoui, fired by software company Micropole after a customer complaint, may well have been discriminatory.
Amnesty International welcomed the ruling on the French case that "employers are not at liberty to pander to the prejudices of their clients". But, it said bans on religious symbols to show neutrality opened "a backdoor to precisely such prejudice".
(With inputs from Reuters)