A French hospital was within its rights when it sacked a Muslim employee who refused to remove her headscarf at work, Europe's top human rights court has ruled. The decision upholding France's ban on religious symbols in public institutions came as an important victory for secularists at a time of heightened tensions after the deadly terrorist attacks in Paris.

The case, dating back more than a decade, was brought before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) by Christiane Ebrahimian, a 64-year-old Muslim woman. Between 1999 and 2000, the Paris-born social worker was employed by psychiatric department of a public hospital in Nanterre, in the city's western suburbs.

After little more than a year, the medical centre did not renew her contract because she refused to remove the Islamic veil at work despite complaints from patients. The decision was based on a government instruction barring public employees from displaying their religious beliefs while discharging their functions.

Ending a lengthy legal battle, the ECHR ruled that Ebrahimian's right to freedom of religion was not breached and French authorities had rightfully given precedence to the state's religious impartiality. Judges upheld local courts findings that the woman's will to manifest her religion was irreconcilable with her public duties.

"Wearing the veil had been considered by the authorities as an ostentatious manifestation of religion that was incompatible with the requirement of neutrality incumbent on public officials," the ECHR said in a statement. "According to the national courts, it had been necessary to uphold the secular character of the state and thus protect the hospital patients from any risk of influence or partiality in the name of their right to their own freedom of conscience. The necessity of protecting the rights and liberties of others – that is, respect for everyone's religion – had formed the basis of the decision in question."

The French government's ban on religious symbols from public institutions was passed into law in 2004 and reinforced six years later by a total ban on full face covering in public. The latter, dubbed as the "burqa ban", was also upheld the ECHR last year, when judges in Strasburg ruled Paris was right in saying that covering one's face in public could be considered as anti-social behaviour.