Employers Can Legally Ban Head Scarfs and Religious Symbols According to The European Court of Justice

Judges decided that employers had the right to ban religious symbols in front of customers but it must be universal, meaning Christian, Islamic, Jewish, and other religious symbols must all be banned as well… 

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) has ruled that employers have a right to ban head scarfs and other religious symbols in the work place. This represents a stark contrast to the United States where employees are generally afforded high degrees of protection when it comes to expressing and practicing religion.

Religious garb and symbols are a very controversial issue for governments. Generally, in the United States people are free to practice their religion and are free from having religion pushed onto them. This has led to conflicts, however, as religious garbs and ancient norms sometimes conflict with modern life.

Conflicts can be especially pronounced in the workplace. Employers are paying employees to perform certain duties, and in the USA employment is usually “at will.” Still, the United States also has strict laws in place against discrimination along the lines of race, religion, gender and other personal preferences. As a result, discrimination along the religious lines can land employers in hot water, even if employment is at will.

In Europe, however, the high courts have ruled that employers can forbid people from wearing religious garb. The decision was rendered by the European Court of Justice, located in Luxembourg. 15 judges heard two cases involving two women who were fired for refusing to remove their head scarfs.

Ultimately, the judges decided that employers had the right to ban religious symbols in front of customers. The ban on symbols must be universal, meaning Christian, Islamic, Jewish, and other religious symbols must all be banned. Any favoritism or discrimination against a particular religion is forbidden.

Whereas the American government tends to take an “agnostic” position, neither promoting or denying religion and religious symbols, European countries are more likely to adopt an “atheist” secular stance. France, otherwise known for being “liberal”, has been among the most aggressive countries in banning religious garb from schools and workplaces. This has caused an uproar and resulted in accusations of Islamaphobia.

As far as the European Court of Justice is concerned, employers have a right to exclude all religious symbols from workplaces. The courts states “an internal rule of an undertaking which prohibits the visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious sign does not constitute direct discrimination.”


The European Court of Justice is a sort of European Union version of the Supreme Court.

Is Ruling a Sign of the Times?

Collectif Contre l’Islamophobie en France (CCIF) has slammed the ruling, arguing that it is the result of growing “Islamaphobia” across Europe. CCIF contends that the ban on religious garb does not uphold the ideals of promoting fundamental rights. Many of the most prominent religious issues and court cases in Europe in recent years have concerned Islam.

A massive influx of refugees and migrants from across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) has strained views and relations across Europe. Many countries have long-standing traditions of “neutrality” as far as religion goes, and cultural norms suggest that religion itself should be a private affair. The cases that led to the European Court of Justice ruling occurred in Belgium and France, both countries with strictly secular governments.

Brian Brinker is an OpsLens Contributor and political consultant. Brinker has an M.A in Global Affairs from American University.

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