It is unlawful to discriminate against staff or treat them unfairly because of religion or belief under the Equality Act 2010.

All religions and protected beliefs are equal under the law. Belief includes religious belief but also philosophical belief. The latter is arguably much wider and more difficult to define. Case law indicates that to qualify for protection a philosophical belief must:

  • Be genuinely held.
  • Be a belief rather than an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available.
  • Be a belief as to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour.
  • Attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance
  • Be worthy of respect in a democratic society, not be incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others.

By using these criteria employers can conclude that a belief in humanism or atheism would be a protected belief but that allegiance to a cult involved in illegal activities or adherence to a particular football team would not be protected.

ACAS has published some helpful guidance on its website including a document entitled “Religion or belief discrimination: ten considerations for employers” which states:

1. Make sure employees are not discriminated against because of religion, religious belief, or philosophical belief, or the lack of them.
2. All protected beliefs are equal – whether religious or philosophical – so one protected belief cannot override another.
3. Be careful throughout a recruitment process to not discriminate against a job applicant because of their beliefs. This includes when working out what is required of an applicant through to offering the job.
4. An employer refusing an employee’s request for leave for a religious holiday or for time to pray without a good business reason could amount to discrimination.
5. An employer should allow an employee to raise concerns about a dress code because of their religion or belief. Employer and employee should both be reasonable about each other’s needs and try to come to an agreement.
6. Employer and employees should be very careful regarding questions related to an individual’s religion or belief, as these might be or become discriminatory, particularly if intrusive or handled insensitively.
7. An employee might ask an employer if they can opt out of certain duties because of their religion or belief. For example, handling alcohol. However, the employer does not have to agree if there is a good business reason for refusing the request and the decision is proportionate.
8. An employer should be aware that an employee who forces their religion or belief on other staff, when they do not want to hear the views, will be harassing them.
9. If an employer refuses a request for a temporary adjustment in an employee’s work hours – for example, starting later and finishing later – while they are fasting because of their religion or belief, the refusal would have to be for a good business reason.
10. An employer should take into account that when an employee suffers a bereavement they may ask for extra time off because of their religion or belief concerning death, mourning and funeral arrangements. Refusal of the request would have to be for a good business reason.

Mistakes by employers in relation to religion or belief discrimination can result in protracted and costly disputes. It is always sensible to take professional advice from an expert Employment Solicitor at an early stage.

For further assistance or advice about the topics raised in this blog please contact our Employment Law Department on 01924 387 110 or click for a call back.


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