European workplaces can bar female employees from wearing headscarves and other political or religious symbols, the EU's top court has ruled. "In this case, this judgment forces Muslim women who wear a headscarf, Sikhs wearing a turban and Jews wearing a kippa to choose between their religious expression, which is a fundamental right, and their right to access the labour market".
In the European Court of Justice's (ECJ) first ruling on headscarves, the judges found the dictat must be based on a general company rule to "dress neutrally" not on religious stereotypes or prejudices.
The Court made separate decisions on the cases, which were referred to them by the courts of Cassation in Belgium and France, but linked the cases.
The ECJ ruling will also make it easier for German companies to prohibit "religious or ideological symbols", says Bernhard Frank from the Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency of Germany.
The ruling could be used as a "licence to discriminate at the point of hire", said Mejindarpal Kaur, worldwide legal director of the network, United Sikhs, in an emailed statement. Both argued that the women had faced discrimination because they were wearing a hijab at work.
Amnesty International Europe has reacted by calling the rulings "disappointing" and as giving "greater leeway to employers to discriminate against women - and men - on the grounds of religious belief".
Her employer's desire to accommodate a customer who did not want someone with a headscarf "cannot be considered an occupational requirement that could rule out discrimination", the court wrote, in sending the case back to the Belgian court.
If the rule to maintain dress neutrality is not mentioned in the company's policy, then the employer could not ask the staff to remove the hijab, even if the customer insists.
At the time of Ms Achbita's hiring, an "unwritten rule" had been in operation banning overt religious symbols, and the company subsequently went on to include this explicitly in its workplace regulations. These rights can, however, be restricted if an employer states "objective reasons" like work safety, jeopardizing company peace or possible damage to the business caused by customer complaints. Prohibiting wearing a headscarf, under such circumstances where the rule was applied in a "consistent and systematic manner" did not "constitute direct discrimination based on religion or belief", it concluded.
France already bans headscarves and other religious symbols in classrooms as well as face-covering veils in streets.
Kim Lecoyer, president of Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights, told Al Jazeera the ruling justified discrimination based on religious grounds.