Wearing of religious symbols in the workplace: a public administration may decide to prohibit all of its employees from wearing such signs.
National courts examine whether the measures taken reconcile freedom of religion with the legitimate objectives underlying that prohibition. In order to put in place an entirely neutral administrative environment, a public administration may prohibit the visible wearing in the workplace of any sign revealing philosophical or religious beliefs. Such a rule is not discriminatory if it is applied in a general and indiscriminate manner to all of that administration’s staff and is limited to what is strictly necessary.
An employee of the municipality of Ans (Belgium), who performs her duties as head of office primarily without being in contact with users of the public service, was prohibited from wearing an Islamic headscarf in her workplace. In the wake of that decision, the municipality amended its terms of employment, now requiring its employees to observe strict neutrality: any form of proselytising is prohibited and the wearing of overt signs of ideological or religious affiliation is prohibited for any worker, including those who are not in contact with the administered. The person concerned seeks a declaration that her freedom of religion has been infringed and that she has been the victim of discrimination.
Hearing the case, the tribunal du travail de Liège (Labour Court, Liège) is uncertain whether the rule of strict, neutrality imposed by the municipality gives rise to discrimination contrary to EU law.
The Court answers that the policy of strict neutrality which a public administration imposes on its employees with a view to establishing within it an entirely neutral administrative environment may be regarded as being, objectively justified by a legitimate aim. Equally justified is another public administration’s choice in favour of a policy authorising, in a general and indiscriminate manner, the wearing of visible signs of beliefs – philosophical or ,religious in particular – including in contacts with users, or a prohibition on the wearing of such signs limited situations involving such contacts.
Each Member State, and any infra-State body within the framework of its competences, has a margin of discretion in designing the neutrality of the public service which it intends to promote in the workplace, depending on its own context. However, that objective must be pursued in a consistent and systematic manner, and the measures adopted to achieve it must be limited to what is strictly necessary.
It is for the national courts to verify that those requirements are complied with.
PRESS RELEASE No 181/23
Luxembourg, 28 November 2023
Judgment of the Court in Case C-148/22 | Commune d’Ans