The European Court of Justice ruled that private companies can ban the Muslim head scarf in its first decision on Europe-wide controversy about religious symbols in the workplace. The ruling essentially states that banning religious symbols does not constitute discrimination and comes at a very critical moment when the old continent is being roiled by disagreement over what religions expression at work and public means. Coupled with the dilemma on how to address mostly Muslim migrants from the Middle East and North Africa, both issues are at the center of the elections in the Netherlands and France.
The new ruling comes in the wake of the years of attacks on Islam by Europe’s populist movements, portraying the religion as incompatible with European values. This anti-Islam and anti-migrant rhetoric has resonated with many votes, thus forcing even centrist political parties to tackle divisive and controversial issues. For example, last summer many French towns banned the full-body swimsuit known as burkini worn by Muslim women but a top French court suspended the ban on the grounds of fundamental freedoms.
Observers warn that the new ban on religious symbols can easily become a harbinger of broader discrimination. Companies can ban religious, political and philosophical symbols in the workplace if such guidelines are in place for all beliefs in which case an employer can fire an employee for noncompliance. According to Amnesty International, these “disappointing rulings by the European Court of Justice give greater leeway to employers to discriminate at a time when identity and appearance has become a political battleground, people need more protection against prejudice, not less.”