Religious Discrimination in the Workplace

By Andrew Willis
02 Oct 2020

Religion or belief can be a big part of an individual’s life. While you may or may not believe it has any place at work, it’s important to take into account an employee’s religion in situations.

Religion and work can coexist relatively harm-free for employer and employee. Let’s look at when it is important to make religious accommodations and when not to, as to avoid discrimination and employment tribunals.

What is the law on religion in the workplace in the UK?

The European Convention on Human Rights protects an individual’s right to hold religious or other beliefs. It outlines this in article nine, where it provides a right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

This includes the right to manifest their religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance if the law permits it. An example of this is wearing a crucifix. Brexit will not affect this.

Under British law, there is no religious discrimination act, but The Equality Act 2010 protects individuals from religious discrimination in the UK.

This is because it’s listed as listed as a protected characteristic, of which there are nine:

  1. Age
  2. Disability
  3. Gender reassignment
  4. Marriage and civil partnership
  5. Pregnancy and maternity
  6. Race
  7. Religion or belief
  8. Sex
  9. Sexual orientation

Therefore, it is illegal to treat someone differently because of religion or belief, and someone’s lack of religion or belief.

What makes up religious faith or philosophical belief?

There is no definitive list of religions or beliefs, but the Equality Act protects any organised religion, such as Christianity or Islam. One religion can’t be seen as more important than another, nor someone’s religion more important than someone’s lack of religion.

A philosophical belief must meet certain conditions, including being a substantial aspect of human life, worthy of respect in a democratic society and not conflicting with the fundamental rights of others

For example, an employee believes strongly in man-made climate change and feels that they have a duty to live their life in a way which limits their impact on the earth to help save it for future generations: this could be classed as a belief and protected under the Equality Act. Similarly, in the past, some employment tribunals have found that veganism is a philosophical belief.

However, someone who believes their race is superior to other’s and makes this known to employees of another race would not be protected. This is because it conflicts with the fundamental rights of others.

Do employers have to allow time for prayer?

No, the Equality and Human Rights acts do not require an employer to provide time off for prayer or religious observance. If you require staff to work certain hours, as long as it is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim, you are within your right to ensure employees work during this time.

Indirect discrimination and religion

Indirect discrimination happens when an organisation has a particular policy or way of working that applies to everyone but which puts employees from a protected group at a disadvantage. An example of religious discrimination is:

  • Requiring employees to work on Sundays. This may disadvantage employees who go to Church.

Workplace dress code or uniform policy and religion

As mentioned before, employees may manifest their belief or religion. This often occurs with clothing choices.

This means that, even if other members of that religion choose not to, you must allow them to wear items of clothing or symbols that are expressions of their religion or belief.

You can, however, refuse an employee from wearing certain clothing if it is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. Depending on the work environment.

For example, if a long skirt is a health and safety hazard in the workplace.

Providing space for prayer

Law does not specify that employers must provide a prayer room. However, if a quiet place is available, and allowing its use for prayer would not cause problems for other workers or for the business, the employer should agree to it being used for religious observance.

Where an employee's religion requires the observance of particular prayer times during the working day, you should respect this if possible and taking such an action won’t impact on your business.

Can employees refuse to work Sundays?

Yes, an employer can opt-out of Sunday working. All shop and betting shop workers can opt-out of Sunday working unless Sunday is the only day you have employed them to work on.

They can opt-out of working Sunday at any time, even if they agreed to it in their contract and conditions of employment. Shop and betting shop workers must:

  • Give their employer three months’ notice that they want to opt-out.
  • Continue to work on Sundays during the three month notice period if their employer wants them to.

You cannot dismiss an employee or treat them unfairly if they use the Sunday opt-out law. You don’t need to offer them alternative days, and this can affect their salary if they are working less.

Examples of where different treatment because of religion is legal

There are certain circumstances that call for different treatment of employees because of religion. We call this objective justification. These circumstances can include:

  • An occupational requirement: where religion is required to perform the job such as a prison chaplain.
  • Positive action: where an organisation is encouraging or developing a group of people with a protected characteristic, including religion or belief.
  • Faith schools: having pupils or staff with that specific belief.
  • Organisational ethos: an organisation based on religion or belief would require someone to hold those to perform the job.

For extra support

Need more help with the complex topic of discrimination? Get in touch with us today for expert advice: 01455 858 132.

About the Author

Andrew Willis

Andrew Willis is the senior manager of the Litigation and Employment Department and assumes additional responsibility for managing Croner’s office based telephone HR advisory teams, who specialise in employment law, HR and commercial legal advice for small & large organisations across the United Kingdom.





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