By Alastair Macdonald
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Companies may ban staff from wearing Islamic headscarves and other visible religious symbols under certain conditions, the European Union's top court ruled on Tuesday, setting off a storm of complaint from rights groups and religious leaders.
In its first ruling on an issue that has become highly charged across Europe, the Court of Justice (ECJ) found a Belgian firm which had a rule that employees who dealt with customers should not wear visible religious or political symbols may not have discriminated against a Muslim receptionist it dismissed for wearing a headscarf.
The judgment on that and a French case came on the eve of a Dutch election in which Muslim immigration is a key issue and weeks before a similarly charged presidential vote in France, where headscarves are banned in public service jobs.
French conservative candidate Francois Fillon hailed the ECJ ruling as "an immense relief" to companies and workers that would contribute to "social peace".
But a group backing the fired employees said the ruling may shut many Muslim women out of the workforce. European rabbis said the Court had added to rising incidences of hate crime to send a message that "faith communities are no longer welcome".
The judges in Luxembourg concluded the dismissals of the two women may, depending on the view of national courts, have breached EU laws against religious discrimination.
They determined that the case of the French engineer Asma Bougnaoui, fired by software company Micropole after a customer complaint, may well have been discriminatory.
Reactions, however, focused on the findings that services firm G4S in Belgium was entitled to dismiss receptionist Samira Achbita in 2006 if, in pursuit of legitimate business interests, it fairly applied a broad dress code for all customer-facing staff to project an image of political and religious neutrality.
"BACKDOOR TO PREJUDICE"
The Open Society Justice Initiative, a group backed by the philanthropist George Soros, said the ruling "weakens the guarantee of equality" offered by EU laws: "In places where national law is weak, this ruling will exclude many Muslim women from the workplace," policy office Maryam Hmadoun said.
Amnesty International welcomed the ruling on the French case that "employers are not at liberty to pander to the prejudices of their clients". But, it said, bans on religious symbols to show neutrality opened "a backdoor to precisely such prejudice".
The president of the Conference of European Rabbis, Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, complained: "This decision sends a signal to all religious groups in Europe". National court cases across Europe have included questions on the wearing of Christian crosses, Sikh turbans and Jewish skullcaps.
In the Belgian case, the ECJ said: "An internal rule of an undertaking which prohibits the visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious sign does not constitute direct discrimination."
It was for Belgian judges to determine whether Achbita may have been a victim of indirect discrimination if the rule put people of a particular faith at a disadvantage.
But the rule could still be justified if it was "genuinely pursued in a consistent and systematic manner" to project an "image of neutrality".
(Additional reporting by Waverly Colville in Brussels and Sudip Kar-Gupta in Paris; Editing by Catherine Evans and Pritha Sarkar)