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Europe’s top court has ruled that employers can ban staff from wearing Islamic headscarves in a decision that is likely to shock Muslims and human rights campaigners.

The European Court of Justice ruled on Tuesday on two cases, one in Belgium and one in France, where Muslim women had been fired from jobs for their refusal to remove headscarves during working hours.

In the Belgian case, G4S, a security company, fired the employee – a receptionist – on the basis that the headscarf violated its policy against “visible signs” of “political, philosophical or religious beliefs.”

In the French case, the company Micropole, sacked the employee because of “the need for neutrality as regards its customers.”

In its decision, which comes one day before a general election in the Netherlands that has been consumed by identity-based politics, the court decided that neither incident constituted “direct discrimination.

“The prohibition on wearing an Islamic headscarf, which arises from an internal rule of a private undertaking prohibiting the visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious sign in the workplace, does not constitute direct discrimination based on religion or belief within the meaning of the directive,” the court said.

The Luxembourg based tribunal went even further, arguing that “indirect discrimination may be objectively justified by a legitimate aim, such as the pursuit by the employer, in its relations with its customers, of a policy of political, philosophical and religious neutrality, provided that the means of achieving that aim are appropriate and necessary.”

National courts must decide whether a company’s policy is legitimate. But the EU’s top court made clear that companies cannot ban employees from wearing headscarves simply at the behest of individual customers.

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