The top European Union court ruled on Tuesday that public authorities in member states can prohibit employees from wearing signs of religious belief, such as an Islamic head scarf, in the latest decision on an issue that has divided Europe for years.
The case came to the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) after an employee of the eastern Belgian municipality of Ans was told she could not wear an Islamic head scarf at work.
The municipality subsequently changed its terms of employment to require its employees to observe strict neutrality by not wearing overt signs of religious or ideological belief.
The woman concerned launched a legal challenge, saying her right to freedom of religion had been infringed.
The hijab, the traditional head scarf worn around the head and shoulders, has been a divisive issue across Europe for years.
The CJEU said a policy of strict neutrality that was intended to establish a neutral administrative environment may be regarded as being objectively justified by a legitimate aim. It added that another public administration would also be justified if it decided to authorise, in a general and indiscriminate manner, the wearing of visible signs of belief.
The court said authorities in member states had a margin of discretion in designing the neutrality of public service they intended to promote. However, this objective must be pursued in a consistent and systematic manner and measures must be limited to what is strictly necessary, the court said.
It was for a national court to verify that these requirements are complied with.