Opinion

Religion in the workplace – employers be warned

7 min read

26 April 2016

A recent ruling surrounding a spat between a Christian and a Muslim in their workplace should serve as a warning to employers, especially as religious discrimination cases are set to become more complex.

The American comedian George Carlin once said: “Religion is like a pair of shoes. Find one that fits you, but don’t make me wear your shoes.”

It’s a sentiment at the heart of a recent employment tribunal case that highlighted the challenges surrounding a mix of different faiths in the workplace, and the inherent possibilities of discrimination claims.

The woman who brought the tribunal case, a practicing Christian called Ms Wasteney, had received a formal warning over her conduct towards a junior colleague, a practicing Muslim. The junior member of staff described Ms Wasteney’s behaviour as “grooming”.

She told of Ms Wasteney laying hands on her, giving her a book about the conversion to Christianity of a Muslim, and inviting her to services and events at Ms Wasteney’s church.

Ms Wasteney’s employer, an NHS Trust, found her guilty of serious misconduct and gave her a formal warning. Then the tables were turned when Ms Wasteney accused the Trust of unlawful religious discrimination and harassment, taking it to an employment tribunal. Both the tribunal and an employment appeal tribunal rejected Ms Wasteney’s claims.

The crucial point here is that Ms Wasteney was not just holding, and demonstrating, a religious belief. She was found to be using her faith improperly with her colleague – not just being Christian, but trying to foist her Christian beliefs on another person.

However, religion in the workplace cases are as diverse as people’s faiths and religious beliefs, and that’s what sets religious discrimination incidents apart from discrimination based on sex, age, disability and gender.

Read more on religion and enterprise:

Take the much different case of British Airways check-in worker Nadia Eweida, who wanted to wear a cross at work, in keeping with her Christian faith. When her employer said no, Ms Eweida argued against her religious liberty.

She claimed that her right to express her religion was being restricted. After trying, unsuccessfully, to battle her case in UK courts, she took it to the European Court of Human Rights. The ECHR ruled in her favour and granted her £1,600 in compensation.

The judgement was welcomed, with even the prime minister David Cameron applauding the European court’s decision. Weighing in on Twitter, he said he was “delighted” with the result and that individuals “shouldn’t suffer discrimination due to religious beliefs”.

And yet in the same judgement, the ECHR ruled against three other practicing Christians. One of them, a nurse, had wanted to wear a crucifix visibly around her neck at work. The hospital she worked at asked her to remove it on health and safety grounds. The judges sided with the hospital managers. In this case, preventing infections won over religious expression.

Religion in the workplace gets even more murky when we cross the Atlantic. In the US, businesses are making headlines now for taking their own religious stances. In what is regarded as a landmark case last year, craft store chain Hobby Lobby refused to pay for employee health insurance coverage for contraception. The ruling was upheld by the Supreme Court (although the court was closely divided in its decision).

The chain’s owners, David and Barbara Green, are Christians, and their strong religious beliefs permeate company practices. In what was a stance against the Affordable Care Act, the company argued that the new healthcare law went against its own “religious liberty”. Barbara Green called the ruling “a victory not just for our family business but for all who seek to live out their faith”.

Observers are, quite rightly, watching the repercussions closely, saying that what this decision amounts to is giving certain businesses the power to be treated as individuals when it comes to their religious beliefs.

The Supreme Court decision aside, the Greens’ Christian faith prevails across the company, in mission statements, the work environment, and even store hours. They close on Sundays to allow time for employees to worship.

One last morsel of food for thought: Christmas. For all its religious diversity, Britain is still a predominantly Christian country. In the run-up to 25 December, trees and tinsel go up in our offices as well as our homes. There are “Secret Santa” gift exchanges, “Christmas” parties and “Christmas” leave. In the future, could these be deemed offensive to non-Christians? Will Britain follow the US’s lead and replace the very word Christmas with “holidays” or “winter” instead?

What does all of this mean for business owners? The answer is, simply, that they need to tread cautiously. At a time of many faiths, religions and nationalities living and working together, business owners and managers need to be mindful of the laws surrounding workers and their religious beliefs.

Religious discrimination cases may begin to increase, however, they’re undoubtedly going to get more complex.

When it comes to religion in the workplace, one millionaire businessman left his fortune behind to live life as a monk.

Alan Matthew is a partner and employment law expert at Miller Hendry solicitors, which is based in Dundee.

Image: Shutterstock