European Court permits headscarf ban for public servants

European Court permits headscarf ban for public servants
A demonstration called '#HijabisFightBack because no woman should be silenced' against the ban on wearing convictional signs in education, Sunday 05 July 2020, in Brussels. Credit: Belga / Nicolas Maeterlinck

Following legal action by a public servant in the Walloon town of Ans, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has ruled that public authorities in Member States can prohibit employees from wearing headscarves and other religious symbols.

A Muslim employee of the local municipality in Ans (Liège province) took legal action in 2021 when she was told she could not wear a headscarf to work and felt that this infringed her religious freedom. The Municipal Council refused her case and subsequently amended rules to require employees to observe strict neutrality concerning religious signs. The employee then took her case to the Labour Court of Liège, who deferred it to the ECJ.

Yesterday's ECJ ruling stated that a policy of strict neutrality was justified, but must be pursued in a consistent and systematic manner. Furthermore, measures must be limited to what is strictly necessary.

The Labour Court has not yet issued its own ruling, but the ECJ ruling aligns with attitudes in Ans: "This is obviously a positive decision for us. It is the first time that the European Court of Justice has issued a ruling concerning a public administration," Mayor Grégory Phillipin told Sudinfo.

Long-standing issue

Bans on religious symbols have sparked heated debate in Europe for years. Belgium is no exception, with headscarf bans in public schools prompting fierce protests in Brussels and Antwerp in the past.

Politicians such as George-Louis Bouchez, President of the Francophone liberal MR party, say that headscarves go against the religious neutrality of the State. Those in the opposite camp fear that the neutrality argument disguises discrimination against Muslims given that religious symbols of Islam are more conspicuous than those of other faiths.

In 2021, the Council of Europe was forced to withdraw a social media campaign that celebrated 'Freedom in the Hijab' when its positive portrayal of headscarves elicited fierce criticism from right-wing politicians such as Marine Le Pen. "Beauty is in diversity as freedom is in hijab. How boring would the world be if everyone looked the same?" the slogan read. The incident highlights the extent of the controversy surrounding approaches to religious symbols in Europe.

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