Public administration allowed to ban religious symbols at work in the EU
A judgment by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) from November 28th 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.