European justice ruled on Tuesday, November 28 that a public administration could decide to prohibit the wearing of religious symbols to all of its employees, including those who are not in contact with the public, in relation to a case in Belgium concerning the Islamic headscarf.
“In order to establish a completely neutral administrative environment, a public administration may prohibit the visible wearing, in the workplace, of any sign revealing philosophical or religious beliefs,” ruled the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU). ).
A first for public service
European justice has already ruled several times on cases of banning the Islamic headscarf from private employers, but this is the first decision concerning the public service.
The municipality of Ans in Belgium prohibited in 2021 one of its employees, working mainly without contact with public service users, from wearing the Islamic headscarf in her workplace.
In the process, the municipality modified its regulations to require its employees to respect strict neutrality, by prohibiting “any form of proselytism” and by prohibiting them from “displaying any conspicuous sign” of ideological or religious affiliation, including to those who are not in contact with those administered.
The employee then challenged this decision in court, claiming that it was discriminatory and violated her freedom of religion.
A referral to the Liège court
The Court of Justice of the EU, seized by the Liège labor court, ruled that “the policy of strict neutrality that a public administration imposes on its workers (…) can be considered as being objectively justified by a legitimate objective “.
The Court considers “just as justified the choice of another public administration, in favor of a policy authorizing, in a general and undifferentiated manner, the wearing of visible signs of convictions, in particular, philosophical or religious, including in contacts with users, or a ban on the wearing of such signs limited to situations involving such contact.”
A “margin of appreciation” for each State
“Each Member State, and any sub-state entity within the framework of its competences, has a margin of appreciation in the conception of the neutrality of the public service which they intend to promote in the workplace, depending on the context own which is theirs”, indicates the Court.
It specifies that “this objective must be pursued in a coherent and systematic manner, and the measures adopted to achieve it must be limited to what is strictly necessary”, and that “it is up to the national courts to verify compliance with these requirements”.
In March 2017, regarding two cases in Belgium and France concerning Muslim women dismissed after refusing to remove their veil, the CJEU ruled that the internal regulations of a company could, under certain conditions, provide for the ban on visible wearing of religious or political symbols.