(CP) The European Union’s highest court has ruled that member state governments can prohibit public employees from wearing religious attire, such as Muslim female head coverings.
The Court of Justice of the European Union ruled in the case of OP v. Commune d’Ans on Tuesday, siding with a Belgian municipality of Ans, which barred a Muslim woman from wearing a hijab while at work.
The EU court was asked whether the municipality’s rules prohibiting public employees from wearing “signs of conviction,” like religious attire or political messages, violated the European Union’s equality framework directive banning discrimination based on disability, sexual orientation, religion or belief and age in the workplace.
The court concluded that the rule was not directly discriminatory to Muslim women because it applied to “any manifestation of belief, including religious belief, without distinction.”
“[T]he desire of a public body, such as the municipal authority, to pursue a policy of political, philosophical or religious neutrality is, in absolute terms, capable of constituting a legitimate aim,” the court’s opinion states.
The EU directive allows member states a “margin of discretion” to take “account of the diversity of their approaches towards the place accorded to religion or belief within their respective systems,” the court ruled, adding that states have discretion when it comes to maintaining a “fair balance” between “achieving the necessary reconciliation of the different rights and interests concerned.”
The ruling drew strong condemnation from the Muslim rights group Council on American-Islamic Relations, which also urged the U.S. State Department to condemn the ruling. The group contends that such legislation meets the U.S. International Religious Freedom Act’s definition of a religious freedom violation and warrants condemnation from the U.S. government.
“The Court of Justice of the European Union has trampled on the basic principles of religious freedom by denying Muslim women the right to wear a hijab at work,” CAIR National Communications Director Ibrahim Hooper said in a statement. “This decision and past rulings in European nations clearly target Muslims and seek to eliminate expressions of Islam from public spaces.”
For the past several years, many European nations have debated whether to restrict or ban certain traditional Islamic head and face coverings for Muslim women, citing reasons such as adherence to secular principles and preserving national identity.
In 2011, for example, France passed a ban on wearing full-face veils in public that carried the punishment of fines and/or citizenship training. The European Court of Human Rights upheld the law in a 2014 decision.
John Dalhuisen, Europe and Central Asia Program director at Amnesty International, said in a statement that he believed the 2014 ruling was “deeply disturbing to all those who value the freedom of expression.”
“If one strips the court’s ruling to its barest essence, it is saying you cannot wear full-face veils because it makes people feel uncomfortable. This is not grounds to ban behaviour or a form of expression — religious or otherwise — that in itself does no harm to others,” stated Dalhuisen at the time.
“[T]his ruling will end up forcing a small minority to live apart, as it effectively obliges women to choose between the expressing [of] their religious beliefs and being in public.”
The EU court ruling comes as assorted measures aimed at curbing religious expression among public employees in the United States are being removed.
In November, Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro signed a law that eliminated a 1949 measure that banned public school teachers from being allowed to wear religious attire.
Known as Senate Bill 84, the proposal had received overwhelming bipartisan support.