A ruling by the European Union's top court on Tuesday, which allows companies to bar staff from wearing Islamic headscarves and other visible religious symbols, has set off a storm of complaint from rights groups and religious leaders. With its first ruling on a hot political issue across Europe, the Court of Justice (ECJ) has found that a Belgian firm which had a rule barring employees who dealt with customers from wearing visible religious and political symbols "may not have discriminated" against a receptionist dismissed for wearing a headscarf.
The judgment came on the eve of a Dutch election in which Muslim immigration is a key issue; in several weeks France also votes for a president in a similarly charged campaign. Piggybacking on the ruling, scandal-ridden French candidate, conservative Francois Fillon, hailed the ruling as "an immense relief" that would contribute to "social peace".
However, the ruling also prompted angry responses: a campaign group backing the women said the ruling could shut many Muslim women out of the workforce. And European rabbis said the Court had added to rising incidences of hate crime to send a message that "faith communities are no longer welcome". Reactions focused on the conclusion that services firm G4S in Belgium was entitled to dismiss receptionist Samira Achbita in 2006 if, in pursuit of legitimate business interests, it fairly applied a broad dress code for all customer-facing staff to project an image of political and religious neutrality, Reuters reported.
The most vocal protester, however, was the Open Society Justice Initiative, a group backed by the philanthropist George Soros, which said the ruling "weakens the guarantee of equality" offered by EU non-discrimination laws.
"In many member states, national laws will still recognize that banning religious headscarves at work is discrimination," policy office Maryam Hmadoun said. "But in places where national law is weak, this ruling will exclude many Muslim women from the workplace."
The president of the Conference of European Rabbis, Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, similarly complained: "This decision sends a signal to all religious groups in Europe". National court cases across Europe have included questions on the wearing of Christian crosses, Sikh turbans and Jewish skullcaps.
Meanwhile, Amnesty International welcomed the ruling on the French case that "employers are not at liberty to pander to the prejudices of their clients". But, it said, bans on religious symbols to show neutrality opened "a backdoor to precisely such prejudice".
In the Belgian case, the ECJ said: "An internal rule of an undertaking which prohibits the visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious sign does not constitute direct discrimination." It was for Belgian judges to determine whether she may have been a victim of indirect discrimination if the rule put people of a particular faith at a disadvantage. But the rule could still be justified if it was "genuinely pursued in a consistent and systematic manner" to project an "image of neutrality".
However, in the case of Asma Bougnaoui, dismissed by French software company Micropole, it said it was up to French courts to determine whether there was such a rule. If her dismissal was based only on meeting the particular customer's preference, it saw "only very limited circumstances" in which a religious symbol could be objectively taken as reason for her not to work.