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Private businesses in Europe can forbid Muslim women in their employ from wearing headscarves if the ban is part of a policy of neutrality within the company and not a sign of prejudice against a particular religion, the European Court of Justice said Tuesday.

Such a ban doesn't constitute what Europe's high court calls "direct discrimination."

The conclusion by the highest court in the 28-nation European Union was in response to two cases brought by a Belgian and a French woman, both fired for refusing to remove their headscarves. It clarifies a long-standing question about whether partial bans by some countries on religious symbols can include the workplace.

The court's response fed right into the French presidential campaign, bolstering the platforms of far-right leader Marine Le Pen, a leading contender in the spring election who wants to do away with all "ostentatious" religious symbols in the name of secularism, and conservative Francois Fillon, who hailed the court's decisions. France already bans headscarves and other religious symbols in classrooms as well as face-covering veils in streets.

However, critics quickly voiced fears that the decision risks becoming a setback to all working Muslim women.

"Today's disappointing rulings ... give greater leeway to employers to discriminate against women — and men — on the grounds of religious belief," said a statement by Amnesty International. "At a time when identity and appearance has become a political battleground, people need more protection against prejudice, not less."

The Open Society Justice Initiative, which submitted a brief supporting the women, expressed disappointment.

"The group's policy officer, Maryam Hmadoum, contended that the decision "weakens the guarantee of equality that is at the heart of the EU's antidiscrimination directive," which the Court of Justice cited in weighing the cases.


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