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The European Union’s top court ruled on Thursday that employers can restrict the wearing of visible religious or political symbols, such as headscarves in order to present a neutral image and to prevent social conflicts.
The European Court of Justice (ECJ) in its order stated that a ban "may be justified by the employer's need to present itself in a neutral manner to customers or to prevent social conflicts."
The court however stressed that it should also consider whether the ban "meets a genuine need on the part of the employer" or not. They must also consider the rights and interests of the employee, including by taking into account national legislation on freedom of religion, it said.
The case was brought before the ECJ by two women in Germany who chose to wear hijab at their workplaces. One works as a special needs caretaker while the other is a sales assistant and cashier. Both filed legal complaints before German courts, which in turn referred the case to the EU tribunal.
EU top court made it clear that the ban does not constitute discrimination if it is systematically applied to all beliefs, even if some religious principles require believers to dress in a certain way. However, a limited ban such as prohibiting "the wearing of a large conspicuous garment, or a head covering" could amount to direct discrimination, and therefore "cannot be justified", as it may result in some workers being treated less favourably than others based on their belief.
EU Member states may take national provisions into account when examining the validity of such bans and to restrict the freedoms to what is strictly necessary, the court said.
Legislation over wearing religious signs in public may differ in the 27 member states. Some countries have outlawed hijab in public places while others have opted for partial bans. The ECJ has allowed courts in individual member states a "margin of discretion" to decide whether a workplace ban is justified based on their own laws on freedom of thought, belief, and religion.
(With inputs from agency)