The European Union's highest court has allowed companies to ban staff from wearing Islamic headscarves at work, but only as part of a general policy barring all religious and political symbols.
The ruling arrives on the eve of elections in Netherland, where Muslim immigration has been a controversial issue and in France, where the race to succeed President François Hollande remains wide open.
The European Court of Justice (ECJ) in Luxembourg ruled the garments could be banned, however, adding that if the company has no policy barring religious symbols then customers cannot simply demand workers remove their headscarves, reports the Guardian.
The ECJ issued a joint judgment in the cases of two women from France and Belgium, who were dismissed for refusing to remove their headscarves.
"An internal rule of an undertaking which prohibits the visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious sign does not constitute direct discrimination," the court said.
It ruled that a company's wish to project a neutral image was legitimate and allowed internal rules banning political, philosophical or religious symbols.
The first case was referred to the ECJ by the Belgian courts, in which Samira Achbita had been a receptionist for the Belgian branch of G4S, the London-listed outsourcing and security company when, after three years at the firm she decided she wanted to start wearing a headscarf at work for religious reasons. But Achbita was fired in June 2006 for refusing to take off her scarf and the company said she had broken unwritten rules prohibiting religious symbols.
In the second case, Asma Bougnaoui, a design engineer, was fired from an IT consultancy firm, Micropole, after a customer complained that his staff had been "embarrassed" by her headscarf while she was on their premises to give advice.
However, the ruling is likely to create confusion about which religious symbols can be worn at work, as legal experts reckon that it seemed to cut against a ruling from the European court of human rights (ECHR) that allowed crosses to be worn.
The ruling also prompted dismay from some religious groups, as the Conference of European Rabbis said that Europe was sending a loud message to the world that its faith communities were no longer welcome.
(This story has not been edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)