ECJ: ban on headscarves at work can be legal

The ban on wearing any visible form of expression of political, ideological or religious convictions could be justified by the employer’s need to convey an image of neutrality to customers or to avoid social conflicts, the ECJ ruled on Thursday.

The ruling was based on two cases from Germany. On the one hand, a Muslim employee of a non-denominational daycare center had been warned several times because she had come to work with a headscarf. Negotiations were then made before the Hamburg Labor Court as to whether the entries had to be deleted from the personnel file. The court then asked the ECJ to interpret EU law.

The Federal Labor Court took a similar approach in 2019 with the case of a Muslim woman from the Nuremberg area who had sued the drugstore chain Müller against a headscarf ban. While the employee saw her religious freedom restricted, the drugstore chain referred to entrepreneurial freedom.

No direct discrimination

As early as 2017, the ECJ ruled in a similar case that a general internal ban on political or religious symbols in the workplace does not constitute direct discrimination. The wish of employers to convey an image of neutrality to their customers is legitimate and part of entrepreneurial freedom, according to the judges.

The final judgment in the specific case of the daycare worker and the drugstore employee must now be made by the competent German courts. The ECJ emphasized on Thursday that they definitely have room for maneuver. In this way, the national courts could, in the context of balancing the rights and interests in question, take into account the context of their respective Member States. This is particularly the case if there are more favorable national regulations with regard to the protection of religious freedom.

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