A top European Union Court has ruled that member countries can restrict their employees from wearing signs of religious or ideological belief, including prohibiting women from wearing a religious headscarf.
The ruling came after an employee, who works as a head of office based in the municipality of Ans in Belgium, was told she wasn’t allowed to wear a hijab to work, resulting in her alleging that her employer had infringed on her religious freedom.
The municipality then amended its terms of employment, saying that employees must ‘observe neutrality’ by not wearing signs of religious or ideological belief. However, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) said that this neutrality must be implemented in a “consistent and systematic manner” and must be limited to what is necessary.
The wearing of a hijab and headscarf has been a contentious and debated subject in some European countries.
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In 2017, CJEU ruled in Luxembourg that the wearing of headscarves could be banned, but this had to be as part of a workplace policy which banned religious and political symbols.
The consequences of this judgement impacted EU countries, but primarily the Netherlands and France – hijabs and burqas have been banned in French state schools since 2004.
In 2021, the court ruled that women could be fired from their job for wearing hijabs, if they worked in a job that dealt with the public.
A ban on face coverings in France reportedly led to almost 600 Muslim women being fined in less than three years, while the banning of headscarves stopped some young girls from finishing school.
Many have looked to the bans as an attack on religious freedom, with most of these restrictions disproportionately impacting women.
Religious and belief discrimination is illegal in the UK and protected by the Equality Act 2010. Although there is no legal requirement to do so, the CIPD says that it’s a good idea for employers to have a written inclusion policy.
The CIPD website says: “In some discrimination claims, employers may have a defence if they can show that they took all reasonable steps to prevent the discrimination occurring. Having a comprehensive current policy, and recent relevant training will help employers to distance themselves from liability for acts such as harassment by an individual perpetrator employed by them.
“A policy also demonstrates the organisation takes its legal and moral obligations towards being a diverse and inclusive employer seriously. It can also encourage employees to treat others equally.”