The ruling issued on Friday by the Constitutional Court resulted from a suit brought by two female Muslim teachers from the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. The teachers wanted to wear head coverings while working for religious reasons.
State authorities had decided that the teachers were violating the law, which in North Rhine-Westphalia forbids any religious symbols or actions that are considered a threat to harmonious co-existence at schools. One of the teachers had been dismissed from her job, while the other received a written warning.
The high court in Karlsruhe has now decided that any such symbol or action must pose a "concrete danger" to be forbidden under the law, saying that the ban was an intrusion on the teachers' self-identity.
The ruling means, however, that headscarves could theoretically still be banned in certain individual cases where such a "concrete" danger is considered to exist. This could occur, for example, if a Muslim teacher wearing a headscarf were to cause frequent altercations among pupils.
No privileging of Christian symbols
The ruling on Friday also overturned another clause in North Rhine-Westphalian law that excepted manifestations "of Christian and Western educational and cultural values or traditions" at schools from the otherwise complete ban on blatant demonstrations of religious affiliation.
The court decided that this exception constituted a privileging of Christian symbols over those of other religions, which would go against the ban on discrimination on religious grounds that is enshrined in the German constitution.
In 2003, the court had ruled that schools could ban teachers from wearing headscarves at school if states had a corresponding law. Several states used the ruling to introduce bans on headscarves into legislation concerning schools.