The European Court has decided that it is not ‘discrimination’ to ban employees wearing “any visible signs of their political, philosophical or religious beliefs and/or from engaging in any observance of such beliefs” provided such a ban is based on internal company rules requiring all staff to “dress neutrally”.
This means that under EU law, companies can ban at work the wearing of a head scarf provided the ban is part of a consistent and neutral companywide policy banning all religious symbols.
The case arose from a discrimination claim brought in Belgium by a receptionist who had been fired for wearing a headscarf at work.
The company had adopted a policy forbidding the wearing of any demonstration of political or religious belief, which included “any manifestations of such beliefs without distinction”.
The Court found that as the ban covered all religious beliefs there was no discrimination.
In contrast, in a second case it was decided that a ban cannot be based on the preference of customers of the business. In a French discrimination case a client had complained when an employee attended a meeting wearing a headscarf. The company asked the employee not to do it again but she refused and was fired as a result. The company had no general policy on the wearing of religious symbols and was just responding to a client comment. This was religious discrimination.
This is a highly contentious area and many will disagree with the judgment. As a matter of EU law, if it is the case that you wish to ban at work the wearing of a particular religious or political symbol it is clear that you must have a policy in place which bans all such symbols equally.
Local laws on this question still apply and you will need to check these carefully before you implement any policy in a particular jurisdiction. However, at EU level, banning head scarves and other religious symbols does not of itself breach EU anti-discrimination rules provided it is done equally for all such symbols.