The EU's top court has ruled that private employers within the bloc can bar their staff from wearing religious symbols, including headscarves, in order to present an image of neutrality.
Companies can ban headscarves in the workplace provided such a prohibition is part of a policy against all religious and political symbols, the European court of justice (ECJ) said on Thursday.
"A prohibition on wearing any visible form of expression of political, philosophical or religous beliefs in the workplace may be justified by the employer's need to present a neutral image towards customers or to prevent social disputes," the court said.
However, that justification must correspond to a genuine need on the part of the employer, it said.
The court had been called to rule on cases brought by two German Muslim women: a special needs childcare worker and a cashier working at a chemist's.
Both were told to remove their hijabs when they returned to work after parental leave. Neither had worn the garments when they took up their jobs.
The childcare centre - which banned staff from wearing religious symbols of any kind, including the Christian cross and the Jewish kippah - suspended the woman on two occasions. It also gave her a written warning which she contested through the German courts.
The chemist's told its employee she could not wear conspicuous political, philosophical or religious signs. She refused and sued her employer on the grounds her head covering was an obligation under her religion.
The ECJ had to decide in both cases whether the ban on headscarves in the workplace constituted a violation of freedom of religion or whether it was justified as part of freedom to conduct a business.
The Luxembourg court judged that employers had to show a “genuine need” for the ban, such as “the legitimate wishes” of customers or users, or “the adverse consequences that that employer would suffer in the absence of that policy”.
In both cases it will now be up to national courts to have the final say on whether there was any discimination under EU law.
In a 2017 ruling, the EU court in Luxembourg had already said that companies could ban staff from wearing headscarves and other visible religious symbols under certain conditions, sparking a huge backlash among faith groups.
The issue of wearing the hijab in public places has caused controversy across Europe for years and highlighted differences over how to integrate Muslim culture.
In France, home to Europe's largest Muslim minority, the principle of secularism (laicité) is enshrined in the constitution and the wearing of Islamic headscarves in state schools was banned in 2004.
In 2014, France’s top court upheld the dismissal of a Muslim day care worker for wearing a headscarf at a private crèche that demanded strict neutrality from employees.
Austria’s constitutional court has ruled that a law there banning girls aged up to 10 from wearing headscarves in schools was discriminatory.