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EU says states can ban religious symbols in public workplace

religious symbols and gavel

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J-P Mauro - published on 12/01/23

While the decision to ban public servants from wearing religious symbols was left up to each state, the EU court said such bans are justified.

A new ruling from the Court of Justice of the European Union allows member states to prohibit the wearing of religious symbols or clothing by employees in public institutions. The case dealt with questions around a Muslim employee wearing an Islamic headscarf, but the decision of the EU court will blanket all religious symbols of all faiths.

According to a press release from the EU court, the case revolved around an employee of the municipality of Ans, in Belgium, who was prohibited from wearing an Islamic headscarf at her workplace. The report notes that the woman, who was not named, held a position as head of her department and did not come into contact with users of the public service. 

Since then, the municipality has amended its terms of employment and requires its employees to observe “strict neutrality.” This means that any form of proselytizing or actions construed as such are banned, as well as the wearing of any “overt signs of ideological or religious affiliation.” The rules apply for all employees of the municipality, whether they are in contact with the public or not.

The employee took the matter to court in the hopes that the EU would declare that her religious freedom had been infringed. The EU court, however, defended the municipality’s right to uphold a policy of strict neutrality, stating that the state’s seeking of an entirely neutral administrative environment “may be regarded as being objectively justified by a legitimate aim.” However, the court did go on to note that a public administration’s decision to either permit or prohibit the wearing of religious symbols is “equally justified.” The report states: 

“Equally justified is another public administration’s choice in favor of a policy authorizing, in a general and indiscriminate manner, the wearing of visible signs of beliefs – philosophical or religious in particular – including in contacts with users, or a prohibition on the wearing of such signs limited to situations involving such contacts.”

The court left discretion on neutrality policy largely in the hands of each member state to design the neutrality policies they wish to promote in the workplace. It warned, however, that objectivity must be pursued in “a consistent and systematic” manner, in order to avoid discrimination. It also suggested that adopted measures should be limited to only what is “strictly necessary.” 

The new law has opened the door for municipalities and public institutions to prohibit all forms of religious symbols from being worn by employees. For Christians, this may mean that crosses must be removed or hidden, which would most likely extend to ashes on the forehead. However, much as when the US Supreme Court overturned Dobbs and sent the question of abortion back to individual states, individual EU member states are free to set their own policies on religious neutrality in the workplace. 

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