EU Headscarf ban puts freedom of religion under threat across Europe

13/07/2017

The European Union’s highest court waded into the politically explosive issue of public expressions of Muslim identity on Tuesday, finding that private employers can ban female workers from wearing head scarves on the job.
The ruling comes as Europe is beginning a critical election season, with races in the Netherlands, France and Germany, and with anti-immigrant, anti-Islam populism rising in many countries. Dutch voters go to the polls on Wednesday, and the far-right party of the anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders is expected to fare well.
In its ruling, the European Court of Justice found that company regulations banning “the visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious sign” did not constitute direct discrimination — so long as such prohibitions applied to religious garb from all faiths, a requirement that legal experts say could also encompass a Sikh turban and a Jewish skullcap, among other religious symbols.
“It is a very bold step,” said Camino Mortera-Martinez, a research fellow at the Center for European Reform in Brussels, describing the ruling as a landmark decision, if also a political and pragmatic one. “Recently we have seen the court being much more attentive to the political winds rather than being so legalistic, because of the recognition that the E.U. is at risk of collapse.”
She characterized the ruling as further evidence that the European court has been pivoting after years of rulings that favored the rights of minorities. This month, the court ruled that European Union member states were not obliged to issue visas to people who planned to seek asylum in their countries, even if they were vulnerable to inhuman treatment or were threatened with torture.

Far-right leaders surely would have pounced had the court ruled differently. Along with Mr. Wilders, the French far-right leader Marine Le Pen has stirred up anti-Islam anger by accusing Muslims of failing to integrate. Europe has been struggling to accommodate huge numbers of migrants, many from predominantly Muslim countries.

Few issues are more politically fraught in Europe than the issue of the rights of observant Muslim women to cover their faces and bodies. Last summer, for instance, a few French municipalities generated global headlines — and outrage — when Muslim women were prohibited from swimming in the sea while wearing a body covering known as the burkini.

Several countries — including France, Belgium, Austria and the Netherlands — have either passed laws that led to bans on full face-covering veils in public, or are considering legislation that would do so. Those laws, however, apply to public and government spaces.

The ruling on Tuesday, which experts said was the first time the court had issued a ruling on women wearing head scarves while on the job, applies only to the workplace and provides a minimum legal standard that member states must meet.

But a group backing the fired employees said the ruling may shut many Muslim women out of the workforce. European rabbis said the Court had added to rising incidences of hate crime to send a message that "faith communities are no longer welcome".
The Open Society Justice Initiative, a group backed by the philanthropist George Soros, said the ruling "weakens the guarantee of equality" offered by EU laws: "In places where national law is weak, this ruling will exclude many Muslim women from the workplace," policy office Maryam Hmadoun said.

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". John Dalhuisen, a director at human rights organization Amnesty International, said the ruling had "opened a backdoor to prejudice."

"Today's disappointing rulings by the European Court of Justice give greater leeway to employers to discriminate against women - and men - on the grounds of religious belief. At a time when identity and appearance has become a political battleground, people need more protection against prejudice, not less. It is now for national governments to step up and protect the rights of their citizens," he said in a statement.

The president of the Conference of European Rabbis, Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, 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.
The ruling is also likely to affect other people that display their religious affiliations through their dress, such as Sikh men, Orthodox Jewish women, nuns working in hospitals or schools, or those who overtly display their political affiliations or sympathies.

The ECJ ruling related to two cases brought by national courts in France and Belgium, regarding Muslim women who had sued their employers. The women argued that they had been discriminated against at work for being asked to remove their veils – one by the employer and the other by a customer and subsequently by her employer – and were sacked when they refused to do so.
Thankfully, the ECJ’s jurisdiction does not pertain to religious freedom in general, and so the scope of this ruling is relatively narrow and limited to non-discrimination in the workplace. But its ruling is frustrating and contradictory, particularly as the EU was a pioneer in establishing the principles of equality and non-discrimination on religious grounds in a person’s occupation with the directive in 2000. The EU even set up an independent EU Agency for Fundamental Rights in 2007 to share good practices and research and to monitor EU countries in this area.
Concerns have already been raised about how the ruling will affect Muslim women across Europe, whether they wear the hijab or not – at least on an emotional level. Yet, unless employers and national courts in different EU member states come across court disputes similar to those presented in this ruling, then this judgement will sit in a drawer without directly affecting people. Still, the ruling is likely to provide ammunition and political legitimacy to all those across Europe who are promoting anti-Muslim, anti-religious or anti-migrant feelings./.
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All comments [ 5 ]


Deck Hero14 13/7/17 21:48

The willingness of an employer to take account of the wishes of a customer no longer to have the employer’s services provided by a worker wearing an Islamic headscarf cannot be considered an occupational requirement that could rule out discrimination.

John Smith 13/7/17 21:51

The ruling could lead to more bans on religious attire in workplaces.

Pack Cassiopian 13/7/17 21:53

The wearing of religious symbols, especially the hijab, has become a hot button issue with the rise of nationalist and sometimes overtly anti-Muslim parties across Europe.

yobro yobro 13/7/17 21:55

Europe was sending a clear message that its faith communities were no longer welcome.

LawrenceSamuels 13/7/17 21:59

It will lead to Muslim women being discriminated in the workplace, but also Jewish men who wear kippas, Sikh men who wear turbans, people who wear crosses. It affects all of them, but disproportionately Muslim women.

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