Equality watchdog unveils confusion over laws protecting religion

In the largest public consultation carried out by the EHRC, it was revealed that atheists and humanists received unwanted conversion attempts and sometimes felt excluded when company events were held in religious buildings.

The report said: Non-religious staff were resentful when they believed that religious colleagues received more favourable treatment in relation to time off and time away from work.

The research, based on 2,483 responses from individuals and organisations, comes as the EHRC prepares a report into laws protecting religious freedoms. This would later be turned into a set of guidelines for employers. This would undoubtedly be welcomed given that employers were unsure of how to deal with “harassment, unwelcome proselytising and discrimination, especially the case when discriminatory views were expressed about women and LGBT staff.”

The treatment of religion or belief in educational establishments was also a cause for concern. Christian parents reported their children being ridiculed in schools for their beliefs for example for believing that god created the world. Humanist parents also reported their children being mocked. The report pointed to an incident where a child was told he didnt deserve Christmas presents by a lunch lady because he didnt believe in god. 

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A recurring theme among some employees was the pressure they felt they were under to keep their religion hidden at work and feeling discriminated against when it came to wearing religious symbols or expressing their beliefs.

Some of the examples cited in the report included a Catholic who was unable to wear a crucifix or rosary while nose rings and tongue piercings were perfectly fine, and a humanist teacher who was told she was not allowed to talk to the children about [her pregnancy]” and advised to wear a pretend wedding ring .

“Some evangelical Christians [who] felt that Christian beliefs had lost their place in society and that this made it more difficult for them to express these beliefs in the workplace and in service delivery,” the report read.

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Mark Hammond, CEO of the EHRC, commented: What we found was a complex picture of different opinions and experiences. However, what came out strongly was the widespread confusion about the law, leading to some resentment and tensions between groups and anxiety for employers who fear falling foul of what they see as complicated equality and human rights legislation. 

“We also found examples of organisations which had taken a constructive approach to dealing with issues of religion or belief, with employees providing positive experiences of diverse and inclusive workplaces.

Some Christian businesses reported being “in turmoil” over whether actions might breach the Equality Act. Hammond added: “We’ll use this evidence as we examine how effective the law is in this area and develop guidance which we hope will help everyone address some of the issues which have come out of the consultation.”

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