The European Court of Justice ruled today that a public service can decide to impose a ban on the use of religious symbols on all employees, including those who do not come into contact with the public, hearing an appeal on the Islamic headscarf.

“In order to create a completely neutral administrative environment, a public service may prohibit the conspicuous use in workplaces of any symbol that reveals philosophical or religious beliefs,” states the decision of the Court of Justice of the European Union.

European justice has repeatedly ruled on cases of banning the Islamic headscarf in private workplaces, but it is the first decision concerning a public service.

The case

The community of Anse in Belgium banned it 2021 to one of its employees, who works mostly without coming into contact with the public, to wear an Islamic headscarf in her workplace.

The community amended its bylaws to require its workers to obligation to observe absolute neutrality, prohibiting “any form of proselytizing” and prohibiting “the display of any visible symbol” of ideological or religious affiliation. The ban also concerns workers who do not come into contact with the public.

The employee appealed to the court supporting the position that the ban is discriminatory and violates her religious freedom.

The Court of Justice of the European Union, to which the labor court of Liège appealed, ruled that “the policy of strict neutrality that a public service imposes on its employees (…) can be considered objectively justified on the basis of a legitimate aim».

The Court considers “also legitimate the choice of another public service in favor of a policy that allows in a general and undifferentiated way the use of visible symbols of philosophical and religious beliefs, and in cases of contact with the public, but also prohibits the use of such symbols only in situations concerning such contacts (with the public)’.

“Each member state and each sub-state organization within its competences have discretion in determining the concept of neutrality of the public service that they wish to promote in the workplace, according to the specific context of each,” the Court’s decision states.

The decision specifies that this objective “should be pursued in a consistent and systematic manner and the measures adopted to achieve it should be limited to what is strictly necessary”, as well as that “it is up to the national judicial authorities to verify compliance with these terms”.

In March 2017, the Court of Justice of the European Union had ruled on two cases of Muslim women in Belgium and France respectively who had been fired for refusing to remove the Islamic headscarf. The Court had ruled at the time that the internal regulations of a company may, under certain conditions, provide for the prohibition of the conspicuous use of religious or political symbols.