Religion On The Clock: Swedes Grapple With Proposals To Rid Workplaces of Religious Symbols

Two rulings from the European Court of Justice stating that companies may prohibit religious clothing and symbols in the workplace has sparked condemnation from Jewish, Christian, and Muslim groups in Europe.

"It is an example of militant atheism entering politics," says Micael Grenholm, Swedish theologian and writer. 

It took just two weeks for a Swedish political party to offer legislative proposals in line with the decision handed down by the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg on 14 March. The Swedish right-wing party Sverigedemokraterna (SD) in southern Skåne and in Västmanland proposed that all employees in state medical system in the two regions would no longer be permitted to wear religious clothing or symbols.

The European court rulings – made in separate but similar cases – stated that it is not discriminatory to prohibit political, philosophical or religious signs as a part of a consistent “internal rule.” Both cases concerned Muslim women who were sanctioned for wearing religious symbols or prohibited from doing so.

The rulings of the European Court of Justice say that companies may ban Muslim headscarves only as a part of a general neutrality policy barring all religious and political symbols. The European Court also stated that customers may demand that workers remove headscarves, but only if the company has a policy barring religious symbols.

In Sweden, and other European countries, questions concerning the place of religion in society can no longer be understood by using traditional political explanations.

Muslim groups - as well as Christian and Jewish groups - all across Europe have protested to the rulings, fearing that the judgment will be prejudicial. A rabbinical group in France said in a statement the decision suggests that faith communities are no longer welcome.

“This decision sends signals to all religious groups in Europe,” Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, president of the Conference of European Rabbis, said in the statement.

Maryam H'madoun at the Open Society Justice Initiative said she was disappointed by the ruling.

“It will lead to Muslim women being discriminated (against) in the workplace, but also Jewish men who wear kippas, Sikh men who wear turbans, people who wear crosses. It affects all of them, but disproportionately Muslim women,” she told the Guardian.

In Sweden, the debate became heated in the wake of legislative proposals from Sverigedemokraterna (SD), the right-wing, nationalistic party sometimes labeled “populist.” Many Christians opposed the SD proposals, among them young theologian Micael Grenholm.

"I engaged in the debate because it is a sign that Europe has become more and more authoritarian. This is not a liberal proposal. It is not conservative. It is not a democratic proposal. It is militant atheism, and it demonstrates that the atheist worldview has strengthened its position, trying to limit people´s freedom," says Grenholm.

Since the terrorist attacks in New York in 2001, there has been a new wave of militant atheism around the world, according to Grenholm.

"Islamophobia is growing, along with atheism and xenophobia. These agendas are interwoven, which sometimes result in militant atheism, but on other occasions xenophobia is expressed by emphasizing a 'Christian identity,' or 'Christian values.'

"The xenophobic agenda is driven by a worldview where Islam is evil, and the goal is to get rid of Islam, either by emphasizing secularism or by emphasizing a Christian identity," Grenholm said.

In Sweden, as well as in several other European countries, questions concerning the place of religion in society can no longer be understood by using traditional political explanations.

Traditionally, liberals have been fighting for individual freedom, while socialists often have positioned themselves as anti-religious. Conservatives used to emphasize traditional Christian values. Today, representatives from Sweden's left, like Rosanna Dinamarca of the Vänsterpartiet (V) defends citizens' right to wear religious symbols at work, while many liberals defend the European Union ruling.

"Traditional leftist views or conservative views are becoming less important. Other factors are becoming increasingly important. It is a conflict between militant atheism and diversity, between democracy and authoritarianism," says Grenholm.

While some of the conservative parties in Europe, such as French Republicans, have welcomed the ruling, populist parties across Europe tend to be most supportive of the judgment. Marine Le Pen, leader of French National Front, supported the ruling, as did Germany's Alternative fûr Deutschland.

”This is not a liberal proposal. It is not conservative. It is not a democratic proposal. It is militant atheism, and it demonstrates that the atheist worldview has strengthened its position, trying to limit people´s freedom” -Micael Grenholm


“The ECJ´s ruling sends the right signal, especially for Germany,” AfD´s Berlin leader Georg Pazderski told the The Guardian.

Until now in both Germany and Sweden there have been no restrictions regarding religious clothing at work, other than restrictions on safety grounds. This development will be far reaching. Süddeutsche Zeitung predicted that the ruling would fundamentally change how courts in the country asses similar cases, according to The Guardian.

In Sweden, Christians within Sverigedemokraterna (SD) support the rulings.

"I'm mostly positive toward the judgment, but I am also slightly critical," says writer and debater Nasrin Sjögren (SD).

"There has been a need of clarification regarding ideologically motivated clothing in the workplace. When orthodox Muslims have made claims, based on their own interpretation of Islam, Swedish anti-discrimination authorities have harassed employers who would not satisfy these claims. The rulings are restitution for those employers, and they get support in the view that they have the right to set the conditions for how their business is to be conducted."

Sjögren says she thinks there is a process of Islamization going on in society, and for her, the main reason for being positive towards the ruling is that it can be a tool to stop this movement.

"The ongoing Islamization process is a systematic and thoughtful plan from orthodox Muslims," Sjögren says

Sjögren is convinced that forces like the Muslim Brotherhood are involved with Islamization, and she has no problem with the judgment being disproportionately applied to Muslim women. On the contrary, she thinks the most important thing about the ruling is it puts an end to “orthodox and aggressive interpretations of Islam.”

However, within her party there has been a diversity of interpretations of the rulings. Some SD partisans are harsh secularists, wanting to ban all religious clothing in healthcare jobs, including the cross. What does she, as a Christian, think about that?

"As a member of SD, I assume that our party program applies. In this program it is clear that Christianity should have a special position in society," Sjögren says. 

She sees both harsh secularism and Islamization as threats towards Christianity.

"Both are destructive and misanthropic ideologies, and the goal is to erase our Christian identity and the Christian values upon which our community is founded. We need to defend the cross from the threats and attacks that comes from different sources," Sjögren claims.

For Micael Grenholm, the right to wear a cross is not a minor issue. It is crucial. And he notes that the right to wear religious symbols or clothing is equally important for other religious groups.

"For me, wearing a cross is a part of being a Christian. It is a part of belonging to Christ. To be a witness isn't optional. You do it every day. It is not compulsory to wear a cross, but for me it is vital, is has to do with my identity.

"I know that many other religious persons feel the same way about their symbols and clothing."

This can be hard to understand for secular Swedes, he thinks. However, many Swedes are strongly attached to human rights. Many of them do not now that those values are founded in religion.

"Those values have their basis in a religious worldview. You can't deduce morality from an atheistic world-view. For example, there is nothing in atheism that says Stalinism was wrong. Contemporary atheists are not necessarily 'immoral.'  But I think that we should not let militant atheism loose. Nothing prevents atheists from viewing social Darwinism as a reasonable ethical system, like many of them did in the 30's.

"In contrast, belief in Christ can give us moral guidance, and human rights can exist as non-physical realities, if God exists," Grenholm argues.

The notion of “neutrality” – a concept vital to the court's rulings – has also been the focus of criticism. What is “neutral” regarding clothing and symbols? Is Western clothing neutral? Or is such clothing only neutral for Westerners?

“Neutrality means that different religious and cultural identities, of which dress codes are a part, are accepted. A policy that forbids all religious symbols isn't neutral. It is an expression of secularism, which also is a culture,”  theologian and writer Joel Halldorf remarked in an editorial in Christian Daily Dagen.

The idea of “neutral clothing” is too often understood as "Western everyday clothing," said Halldorf.

Religious symbols in clothing and the proper place of religion in society will continue to be debated in Europe, which is now awash in identity dilemmas. Here immigration, secularism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, Christophobia, and freedom of religion versus secularists' demand for expanded “neutral” zones free from religion are becoming heated issues and an increasingly important theme of political dialogue.


Photo of Coexist t-shirt from Flickr user Sonny Abesamis.