The Court of Justice of the European Union (EU) has ruled that, from now on, Government offices across EU can ban employees from wearing religious symbols, including Islamic headscarves, amid a bid for a neutral administrative environment.  

Nonetheless, it argued that rules and restrictions should be based on each member’s states legal context and that they must be applied equally to all employees.

It further explained that the new rule is not discriminatory if it is applied in general “and is limited to what is strictly necessary”, the Guardian reported.

The ruling by the court came about after a Muslim employee, situated in eastern Belgium, was asked not to wear a headscarf at her employment. This request was posed even though, as noted by court documents, she had minimal contact with the public.

Following this request, terms of employment were changed so that all individuals in her municipality would observe the neutrality rule.

However, reacting to the demand, the employee filed a complaint with a local court stating that the ban was discriminatory and breaching her right to freedom of religion.

The court acknowledged that while explicit displays of religious belief were not allowed, the evidence presented by the complainant, showed that “discreet signs of conviction were tolerated.”

Sibylle Gioe, her lawyer, told the Guardian that religious symbols included wearing cross earrings or of the holding of Christmas parties.

The local court then turned to the EU’s court of justice to determine whether the neutrality rule was in fact discriminatory.

Subsequently, the EU court reiterated that the policy is strict neutrality may be regarded as being objectively justified by a legitimate aim. On the other hand it also noted that public administration could also be justified in permitting employees to wear signs of belief, religious or philosophical, without discrimination and in a broad manner.

The court added that national courts of member states have a “margin of discretion” in making decisions on how to balance the rights of individuals with the principle of public service neutrality.

“However, that objective must be pursued in a consistent and systematic manner, and the measures adopted to achieve it must be limited to what is strictly necessary,” it remarked.

This decision did not go well with the lawyer representing the employee highlighting “the ambiguity” of the court’s ruling.

“European Union law does not opt for one solution over another, and I was expecting something like that,” she added.

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