Bosses across Europe are now entitled to stop employees from the “visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious sign” including headscarves, after a ruling by the EU’s top court.
However, any ban must be based on internal company edicts requiring all workers to “dress neutrally”, said the European Court of Justice.
The ruling was prompted by the case of a receptionist fired for wearing a headscarf to work at the security company G4S in Belgium. The court referred the case to the EU for clarification.
Austria and Bavaria have already announced bans on full-face veils in public spaces but Amnesty International said the new ruling was “disappointing” and “opened a backdoor to prejudice”.
The ECJ ruled on the case of Samira Achbita, fired in June 2006 when, after three years of employment, she began wearing a headscarf at work. She claimed she was being discriminated against on the grounds of her religion.
But when she first got the job an “unwritten rule” banning overt religious symbols was operating and the company eventually made it part of its workplace regulations.
That covered “any manifestation of such beliefs without distinction”, and was therefore not discriminatory, the court said.
But John Dalhuisen, director of Amnesty International’s Europe and Central Asia programme, said the rulings “give greater leeway to employers to discriminate on the grounds of religious belief. At a time when identity and appearance has become a political battleground, people need more protection against prejudice, not less.
“The court did say that employers are not at liberty to pander to the prejudices of their clients. But by ruling that company policies can prohibit religious symbols on the grounds of neutrality, they have opened a backdoor to precisely such prejudice.”
And Jonathan Chamberlain, an employment lawyer at Gowling WLG, said: “Its fine for employers to have a dress code but it needs to be applied with some sensitivity and flexibility to take account of religious beliefs.
“What is almost certainly never okay is for an employer to tell an employee to stop wearing a religious symbol because a particular customer has asked for it. “
The Open Society Justice Initiative, a group backed by the philanthropist George Soros which had supported the women, said it was disappointed by the ruling.