A European court ruled Tuesday that employers can ban the wearing of Muslim headscarves in the workplace, a decision human rights groups say “opens a back door” for more religious prejudice in Europe at a time when Islamophobic sentiment is on the rise throughout the continent.
In its nonbinding ruling, the 15-judge panel at the European Court of Justice said any employer that “prohibits the visible wearing of any political, philosophical, or religious sign does not constitute direct discrimination.” The ruling states that the ban cannot be directed at headscarves explicitly but must be part of an internal rule requiring all employees to “dress neutrally.” The court added that the ban cannot be at the behest of a customer demand.
“It is a sad day for justice and equality,” a spokesperson for the Muslim Council of Britain told VICE News. “At a time when populism and bigotry are at an all-time high, we fear that this ruling will serve as a green light to those wishing to normalize discrimination against faith communities.”
According to the European Network Against Racism, the ruling “seriously undermines the right to equality and nondiscrimination of women.” The chairwoman of the group, Amel Yacef, added: “This is nothing short of a Muslim ban applied only to women in private employment, just because of how they choose to dress according their religion.”
Human rights group Amnesty International called the ruling “disappointing,” with John Dalhuisen, director of the charity’s Europe and Central Asia program, calling on individual governments to protect against religious prejudice. “By ruling that company policies can prohibit religious symbols on the grounds of neutrality, they have opened a back door to precisely such prejudice. It is now for national governments to step up and protect the rights of their citizens.”
Ibrahim Kalin, the assistant to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, tweeted that the decision “will only strengthen anti-Muslim and xenophobic trends.”
The ruling comes at a critical time for Europe as it attempts to deal with an influx of mainly Muslim immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East, with many politicians seeking to link this to the rise in terror attacks on the continent.
On Wednesday, the people of the Netherlands will vote in a national election that has been dominated by far-right candidate Geert Wilders, who has pledged to close mosques, ban the Koran, and halt Muslim immigration.
In France — which places particular significance on the separation of state and religious institutions — the topic is of particular interest, given the number of terror attacks in the country in recent years. In next month’s presidential elections, leader of the far-right National Front party Marine Le Pen is expected to easily make it through the first round of voting. And while she is not predicted to win the final runoff in May, her anti-Muslim policies are gaining support in the country.
Le Pen recently refused to wear a headscarf for a meeting with Lebanon’s top Sunni religious leader, walking out when presented with a veil to cover her hair.