The European Union's top court has ruled that employers are entitled to ban staff from wearingvisible religious symbols; a decision critics say is a direct attack on Muslim women wearing hijab at work.
The European Court of Justice (ECJ) said in a judgment on Tuesday that it did not constitute "direct discrimination" if a firm had an internal rule banning the wearing of "any political, philosophical or religious sign."
"An internal rule of an undertaking which prohibits the visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious sign does not constitute direct discrimination."
The Luxembourg-based court delivered the verdict in the cases of two women, in France and Belgium, who were dismissed for refusing to remove the headscarf worn by many Muslim women who feel is part of their religious duties.
The court found that a headscarf ban may also constitute "indirect discrimination" if people adhering to a particular religion or belief, such as Muslims, are put at a particular disadvantage.
Indirect discrimination is permissible if it is "objectively justified by a legitimate aim" such as a company's policy of neutrality, provided that the means of achieving it are appropriate and necessary, the court said.
Amnesty International has voiced concern over the court ruling, saying the ECJ action was "disappointing" and would only encourage discrimination.
"By ruling that company policies can prohibit religious symbols on the grounds of neutrality, they have opened a back door to precisely such prejudice," Amnesty said.
Reacting to the court ruling, Muslims and campaign groups backing the women said it could shut many Muslim women out of the workplace.
The wearing of the headscarf has become a hot issue with the rise of nationalist and sometimes overtly anti-Muslim parties across Europe.
The issue of Muslim veils such as the burkini, the full-body Islamic swimsuit, and the niqab, the face cover, has recently turned into a hot topic in Europe.
Many European states have imposed strict laws banning Muslim veils in violation of religious freedom and expression.
Some countries such as Austria are mulling a complete ban on the full-face veil in public. In France last year, local authorities barred women wearing the burkini, fining those who did.
Later on Tuesday, Turkey reacted to EU court’s hijab ban, saying it would intensify anti-Muslim sentiment.
"The European Court of Justice’s decision on the headscarf today will only strengthen anti-Muslim and xenophobic trends," Ibrahim Kalin, a spokesman for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said in a tweet, adding, "Quo vadis Europa? (Where is Europe going?)."
European rabbis condemn EU court ruling
In a related development, Rabbi Goldschmidt, President of the Conference of European Rabbis, issued a scathing statement on Tuesday slamming the decision by EU’s top court.
“This decision sends signals to all religious groups in Europe. With the rise of racially motivated incidents and today’s decision, Europe is sending a clear message; its faith communities are no longer welcome,” the statement read.
It added, ““Political leaders need to act to ensure that Europe does not isolate religious minorities and remains a diverse and open continent.”
Rights groups slam EU ban on religious symbols
Amnesty International has issued a statement condemning EU court’s decision, especially in view of the sensitive political and social climate surrounding religious identification.
"Today's disappointing rulings ... give greater leeway to employers to discriminate against women—and men—on the grounds of religious belief," said the statement, which added, "At a time when identity and appearance has become a political battleground, people need more protection against prejudice, not less."
Meanwhile, the Open Society Justice Initiative has also expressed disappointment at the decision.
According to AFP, the group's policy officer, Maryam Hmadoum, noted that the decision "weakens the guarantee of equality that is at the heart of the EU's antidiscrimination directive," which the Court of Justice cited in weighing the cases.