Business Law & Compliance

Religious discrimination 2015: What employers need to know

5 min read

07 July 2015

Religious discrimination legislation has been in place in the UK since 2003. However, a survey by the Equality and Human Right Commission revealed that these laws are confusing workers and employers alike – so we collected a sample of cases to explain the basics.

There has long been a concern about how employers can strike a balance between the right to freedom of expression and religious views without discrimination getting in the way. 

Essentially, religion and belief are protected characteristics under the Equality Act (EA) 2010. Treating a person less favourably because of their religion or belief is thus unlawful. However, it’s easy to understand where confusion comes in given the constant changes and extensions of discrimination law. In fact, a new bill to amend the act has already been reviewed.

It is important, however, to remember that if you ever do find yourself subject to a religious discrimination claim, the court’s first port of call will be whether or not a claimed religious belief is genuine.

This was shown to be true in 2015’s Williamson v Secretary of State for Education and Employment case. Lord Walker, who presided over the case, doubted whether it was right for the courts “to impose an evaluative filter at the first stage, especially where religious beliefs are involved”. This case stated that it is only the genuineness of the claimant’s belief which should be taken into account. 

This can further be explained through the case of Grainger v Nicholson, whereby the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) claimed that a belief that is genuinely held qualifies as a protected belief.

The employee’s belief that “mankind is heading towards catastrophic climate change and we are under a moral duty to act to mitigate or avoid this” was a philosophical belief, the EAT maintained.

Furthermore, employers also have a duty to prevent harassment based on someone else’s religion. When it came to Saini v All Saints Haque Centre and others, an employee that resigned made complaints of harassment on the ground of a colleague’s religion. The EAT confirmed that harassment because of someone else’s religion would be unlawful.

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Although these are all important laws, the issue of religious dress is one that arguably features regularly in the courts and in the press, such as the dispute about the veiling of a defendant in Blackfriars Crown Court

In 2011’s Dhinsa v Serco & Anor, the employment tribunal held that a ban on prison officers carrying knives did not amount to indirect race or religious discrimination. The case was brought by a Sikh prison officer concerning the right to wear a kirpan for religious reasons. Azmi v Kirkless Metropolitan Borough Council’s 2007 case made it clear that an instruction to remove a veil was not indirectly discriminatory when carrying out duties as a bilingual support work.

Of course, then there’s the famous Eweida and others v United Kingdom case, which revealed that an employee had the right to wear a religious symbol. Yet this is not always the case.

Shirley Chaplin, a nurse, was urged to remove her cross due to the hospital introducing a policy that forbade employees from wearing necklaces. A dispute arose when she refused to do so. The European Court of Human Rights explained that the employer had wanted to preserve the health and safety of the hospital ward, which took precedence over the right to wear a religious symbol.

However, there is far more to religious discrimination than whether or not employees are adhering to the uniform set out by employers. 

The EA does not require employers to provide time off or to alter an employee’s working pattern for prayer. At the same time, employers need to be ready to justify it as it could amount to an indirect religious discrimination claim.

In June 2015’s Qureshi v Teknequip case, a Muslim employee who was refused an extended lunch break one day a week to attend prayer at his Mosque was unsuccessful in court. It had concluded that no indirect discriminated had taken place given that the employer had already allowed the employee an extra half-hour for lunch on Fridays, as well as time to pray without restriction.