The European Union’s top court has decided that public offices in member states have the right to refuse all religious symbols. This does only apply to people at the front desk but also in the background. The only rule is that the ban applies to all; from the Muslim head scarf to the Jewish kippah and the Christian cross.
Headscarf in European Court. Photo AFP, Olivier Morin
The same court has handled some more cases about the same topic. But this one is the most far-reaching since it can also apply to the employees backstage.
The decision does not say that all governments (local, regional and national) in the EU have to ban this; only that they have the right to do so if they do it equally for all beliefs.
The EU Court of Justice (ECJ) in Luxembourg only represents the 27 member states. This court differs from the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg. That is an institution of the Council of Europe with 46 member states. It is possible that the same case would have been concluded differently in Strasbourg.
The goal that governments want to serve is neutrality. All citizens have to feel safe if they are at a public desk. But measures are only trustworthy in an “entirely neutral administrative environment”, as The Guardian reports.
The court was asked to rule after a Muslim employee in the municipality of Ans, eastern Belgium, was told she could not wear a headscarf at work. Court documents noted her job involved little contact with the public.
Soon after, the municipality amended its terms of employment to require that all employees observe strict neutrality. The employee complained to a local court, describing the ban as discriminatory and voicing concerns that her right to freedom of religion had been infringed.
In a decision that holds for public sector offices across the EU, the Luxembourg-based court said a policy of strict neutrality “may be regarded as being objectively justified by a legitimate aim”.
The court also said that the other option would be possible, namely that public administrations could allow employees to wear visible signs of belief, whether religious or philosophical, in a general and indiscriminate way.
According to The Guardian, Femyso, a pan-European network representing more than 30 Muslim youth and student organisations, described the ruling as potentially infringing on the freedom of religion and expression. “Despite being neutrally cloaked, bans on religious symbols invariably target the headscarf,” the organisation said, citing a 2022 paper from the Open Society Foundations that argued that these bans rest on Islamophobic discourses that portray Islamic dress as incompatible with neutrality.