The European Union's top court ruled Tuesday that private companies can ban employees from wearing the Muslim headscarf, the BBC reports. EU law forbids private companies from discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief, but the court found that "an internal rule ... which prohibits the visible wearing of any political, philosophical, or religious sign does not constitute direct discrimination."
The Open Society Justice Initiative, which backed the complaints brought by women in France and Belgium, said that the ruling "weakens the guarantee of equality that is at the heart of the EU's anti-discrimination directive" and will "exclude many Muslim women from the workplace."
In the French case, Asma Bougnaoui worked as an engineer at the IT firm Micropole and was fired in 2009 after a customer complained to her supervisors that there be "no veil next time" and Bougnaoui refused to remove it, The Washington Post reports. But because there was not an official policy in place that banned headscarves at Micropole prior to the complaint, the court said that "the willingness of an employer to take account of the wishes of a customer no longer to have the services of that employer provided by a worker wearing an Islamic headscarf cannot be considered a genuine and determining occupational requirement."
However, in the Belgium case, Samira Achbita was hired as a receptionist at a multinational security company in 2003, when she did not wear a hijab. In 2006, she requested she be allowed to do so but was dismissed due to the firm already having a "neutrality" policy in place that prohibited visible religious signs.
The European Union court's ruling is nonbinding and ultimately falls to the discretion of courts in France and Belgium. In France, laws already ban Muslim headscarves in public service jobs.