The Church of England and Jewish groups have criticised a European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruling that allows employers to ban religious symbols from the workplace.
The issue was brought before the court by two Muslim women who were fired for refusing to remove their headscarf.
The two cases have reignited the debate over religious freedom, with Christians and Jews getting involved.
The Court was asked to rule on two cases, one from Belgium and the
other from France. the plaintiffs are Samira Achbita, who worked at G4S
Secure Solutions NV, and Asma Bougnaoui, who worked for IT consultancy
firm Micropole SA.
According to the ECJ, there was no discrimination in the Belgian case
because the employee was aware of the unwritten rule that required
dress code neutrality for all employees.
The French case was different. Here the Court referred the final
decision to national courts.
It also noted that the ban might be
discriminatory because it was due to complaints from a customer.
Under EU law, an employer can fire an employee who does not abide by
company policies, but must have a valid reason and the decision must be
According to the Court, the desire to maintain a neutral secular corporate image falls within the rules.
Some religious leaders strongly reacted to the rulings. Although they
do not relate specifically to Islamic headscarf, their underlying
principle can apply to all religious symbols.
The Anglican Church of England slammed the decision, saying that it would prevent Christians from exercising their religious freedom.
"This judgment,” said the Rt Revd Nicholas Baines, the Bishop of
Leeds, “once again raises vital questions about freedom of expression,
not just freedom of religion, and shows that the denial of freedom of
religion is not a neutral act, contrary to how it might be portrayed."
The president of the Conference of European Rabbis, Chief Rabbi
Pinchas Goldschmidt, agrees. "This decision sends a signal to all
religious groups in Europe”, namely that faith communities are not
In Europe, the debate on religious symbols is a complex one, and the law varies from place to place.
One example is the ruling by the European Court of Human Rights
(ECHR) in a 2013 case in which a British Airways employee was fired for
refusing to hide a gold cross around her neck.
According to the ECHR, the dismissal was unlawful because the airline
company had allowed, at the same time, Muslim employees to cover their
Some NGOs also reacted. For the Open Society Justice Initiative, a
branch of US-based Open Society Foundations, the ruling weakens the
guarantee offered by the European Union's anti-discrimination laws.
"In many member states, national laws will still recognise 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."
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 added that bans on religious symbols to show
neutrality opens "a backdoor to precisely such prejudice".
At the national level within the European Union, many cases have come
to the fore involving Christian crosses, Jewish skullcaps and Sikh