ECJ rules Public Administrations can ban Religious Symbols at work
A judgment by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) from November 28 ruled that a public administration's imposition of strict neutrality to establish a 'neutral administrative environment' by forbidding the use of visible religious symbols can be justified. The Court states that Member States have discretion in designing neutrality policies but must pursue these objectives consistently and reasonably. This concept of 'strict neutrality', which is seen as opposed to visible religious symbols, raises religious freedom concerns.
The ECJ's judgment results from a dispute initiated by a Muslim woman employee of a Belgian municipality. Working primarily without public contact, she requested to wear a ḥijāb (Islamic headscarf) at her municipality workplace in 2021. Her request was, however, declined by the municipal board on grounds of neutrality at the workplace. Later, the municipality adopted a rule requiring 'strict neutrality', barring all staff from displaying visible signs of religious or philosophical beliefs. The employee claimed her religious freedom had been violated and filed a complaint against the decision. The court raised concerns about potential discrimination, seeking clarification from the European Court of Justice (ECJ) regarding whether a public administration can enforce a complete ban on staff wearing religious signs, even for employees without public interaction, and whether such a rule might discriminate particularly against women.
The ECJ responded in its judgment published on 28 November that a strict neutrality policy enforced for the employees of a public administration, if aiming to create a completely unbiased administrative atmosphere, could be seen as objectively justified due to a valid purpose, even for employees that do not interact with the public.
This decision is in line with previous jurisprudence of the EJC, for example when it ruled last year that private companies can ban religious symbols at work. it is feared that these decisions set a damaging precedent against religious freedom at the workplace. Christian organisations and churches also fear that this recent judgment will lead to Christian believers being forbidden to wear symbols like cross necklaces in public administration workplaces.