It is unlawful for an employer to discriminate against a member of staff because of their religion or belief (or on any other protected ground).  Protection is also afforded to non-believers who have the same rights as believers. 

An employee is protected from direct discrimination, indirect discrimination, harassment and victimisation.  There is no minimum period of service required and protection is also available to applicants who apply to you for a job.

Employees will only be able to succeed with a direct discrimination claim if they can establish that they has been treated unfavourably because of their religion or belief when compared with someone who does not share that beliefs.  There is no need for the employee to identify a real person to compare themselves with.  If there is no such person, the Tribunal will consider how a ‘hypothetical’ comparator would have been treated. 

The following examples provide some guidance:

  • A Muslim teacher who was dismissed for not removing her veil when teaching was not directly discriminated against because ‘face to face’ contact was necessary and a non-Muslim teacher who covered their face for would have been treated in the same way.
  • A Christian registrar who was disciplined because she refused to carry out civil partnership duties on behalf of her employer because same-sex relationships were against her religious beliefs was not directly discriminated against.  This formed part of their duties and another registrar who also refused would have also been disciplined.

Employers can therefore discipline (and in serious cases dismiss) staff who are not willing to subordinate their beliefs temporarily in order to fully perform their role provided they can establish that another person, not sharing their particular beliefs would have been treated in the same way.

It is more common for difficulties to arise where employers have a provision, criterion or practice (such as a policy) that applies to the whole workforce, but which adversely affects a protected group.  This is known as indirect discrimination and employers must make changes to the offending provision, criterion or practice unless the business can demonstrate a genuine business need for the policy and can justify retaining it, without change. 

Particular difficulties can arise in relation to:

  • Religious workers who wish to take time off (or to permanently adjust their working patterns) to observe religious prayer or festivals.
  • Non-discriminatory working practices which directly conflict with the protected characteristics of religion or belief and those of another protected group (for example, some religious groups have strong views on homosexuality).
  • Dress codes.

Ordinarily, if there is another, non-discriminatory way of achieving the same objective or accommodating the employee’s request, you will be expected to do so.  However, if you cannot do so (and have evidence to prove this) you do not have to make any changes.

Employers are not required to prioritise certain protected characteristics against others, or make value judgments about competing views.  If you do so, the scope for discrimination claims is obvious.  

One belief does not necessary ‘trump’ another and rights in relation to religion and belief are not absolutes.