Workers can be barred from wearing religious garb, such as head scarves, in the offices of public administrations, a European Union court ruled on Tuesday, tapping into a charged debate in Europe about expressions of faith in public institutions.
The decision came after a Muslim woman who worked for the Belgian municipality of Ans was told she could not wear a head scarf on the job. She sued her employer, alleging that her right to religious freedom had been violated.
The Court of Justice of the European Union had previously ruled that employers could bar workers who interact with clients from wearing religious symbols. But in this case, the woman had little interaction with the public in her role.
The court said the employer’s decision was lawful, effectively allowing public administrations to ban head scarves and other religious symbols from their workplaces for any worker, regardless of whether their employees have contact with the public.
As an interpretation of European Union law, the decision could have effects that go beyond Belgium’s borders. Muslim groups, already concerned over the treatment of Muslims in Europe, expressed worry that it might enable employers to further marginalize Muslim women in the workplace.
Here is what we know about the case.
What was the Ans case about?
In 2021, an employee of the Ans municipality asked to wear a head scarf at work, according to court documents, which do not name the woman.
Her employer told her that she could not wear the scarf, and then changed the workplace’s regulations to establish that all employees were required to respect the “principle of neutrality,” the concept that workers need to abstain “from any form of proselytism” and from displaying any signs of their ideological, philosophical, political or religious beliefs.
The woman filed suit, arguing that the decision violated her right to religious freedom and that she was being discriminated against. The case was eventually taken up by the Court of Justice of the European Union, which ruled that a public administration can adopt a policy of strict neutrality if justified by a legitimate aim.
At the same time, it said, public administrations can decide to allow their employees to wear visible signs of their beliefs. The court added that these policies must be imposed in a consistent and systematic manner and must be limited to what is strictly necessary.
Muslim organizations expressed concerns with the ruling, arguing that the principle of neutrality had mainly been used to bar Muslim symbols in public.
Muslim women already face discrimination on multiple grounds, FEMYSO, a network that represents Muslim youth and student organizations in Europe, said in a statement. “Such a ruling risks legitimizing their removal from public life,” the statement said.
What was the previous ruling on the matter?
The court’s move comes after a 2021 decision, which focused on a case in Germany.
In that ruling, the court stated that expressions of political, philosophical or religious beliefs could be barred if an employer needed to present a neutral image “with regard to its customers and users.”
In the most recent decision, the court expressed a similar stance on policies that not only regulate the employees’ interactions with customers, but also their interactions with their colleagues.
Sibylle Gioe, a lawyer for the plaintiff in the Belgian case, said that the court’s decision on Tuesday was predictable and that she did not expect that the court would take a stance favoring a specific approach to religious symbols in public institutions, as European Union countries differ on the matter.
How has neutrality been enforced?
France’s bedrock principle of laïcité — its model of secularism based on Enlightenment philosophy that separated religion from the state — has led to bans of religious symbols in some public spaces like schools.
Earlier this year, France announced a ban on public school students wearing the abaya, a full-length robe worn by some Muslim women.
That added to a 2004 ban on middle and high-school students wearing “ostentatious” symbols with a clear religious meaning, and a 2011 ban to wearing a face-covering veil in public spaces.
The French state weighed in on the recent Belgian case, presenting arguments to the Court of Justice. It argued that the principles at stake in the case pertained to the national identity of member states.
“They were really worried,” said Ms. Gioe, “as if the whole principle of laïcité would crumble for a small Belgian case.”