EU Court Permits Ban on Political and Religious Symbols

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled on March 16 that employers have the right to ban staff from wearing visible religious symbols in the workplace. The decision grants right-wing nationalists a victory amid the growing religious and ethnic tensions in Europe. The ruling added to growing populist sentiments at a time when several national elections will soon occur. The court’s decision serves as the culmination of disputes brought forth in two cases, both involving suits Muslim women brought forward, one Belgian and one French, against their employers. Each case resulted in the limitation of the rights of the women to wear signs of their faith. According to the ECJ, the internal rules of businesses banning the wearing of conspicuous signs does not constitute discrimination, so long as the ban is neutral and non-preferential. Since prohibition of visible religious symbols applies to those of all religions, discrimination does not apply in this case.

The idea behind the decision is that businesses should be permitted the freedom to make their own choices as to what image they would like to project. Yet, many people, especially Muslims, believe that symbols like the hijab are an integral part of their religion. Such a ban infringes on their right to practice their religion, said Al Jazeera. “I cannot think of another symbol that will affect hundreds of thousands of people in Europe," added the report. While the ruling does not single out Islam, many Muslims view it as a direct attack, particularly in light of heightening Islamophobic sentiment throughout Europe.

The ECJ’s decision comes at a crucial time in European politics. While Geert Wilders and the Party for Freedom (PVV) of the Netherlands were soundly defeated in the Dutch elections on March 16, the populist movement as a whole is gaining traction and threatens to dramatically change the European political landscape. Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front (FN) of France currently holds a lead in first-round presidential polls. The party is a bastion of populist ideals, including nationalist and anti-immigrant sentiments. Gilbert Collard, a member of the FN tweeted that the ECJ supported Le Pen’s ideologies, hailing the Court’s decision as a gain to FN’s credibility.

Currently, several European countries including France and Austria already have laws in place that on some level prohibit the wearing of religious signs in public. However, the execution of the ECJ’s ruling will be left to each individual national government. Both the capacity to which the ruling will be enforced across Europe and its impact on national elections are yet to be seen.