Before the Employment Equality (Religion and Belief) Regulations came into force in 2003, there was no specific protection for employees from discrimination on grounds of their religious or other beliefs. The law on religion and belief discrimination is now set out in the Equality Act 2010 (the Act) which provides for protection from discrimination in the workplace on the grounds of a number of protected characteristics including disability, race, sex, age, sexual orientation and religion or belief. The Act covers Great Britain only. There are separate laws governing Northern Ireland.
What is a religion or belief?
“Religion” is defined in the Act as any religion or lack of religion – and “belief” as any religious or other philosophical belief including a lack of belief. Non-believers, therefore, have the same rights as believers.
These definitions are not particularly helpful in themselves but the Explanatory Notes to the Act give further guidance and case law has also clarified what would be included.
A religion for the purposes of the Act must have a clear structure and belief system and would include the more commonly known religions in the UK, such as Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Rastafarianism, Sikhism and Zoroastrianism, as well as any other perhaps less well known religions which the courts should decide qualify for the Act’s protection.
Guidance has also been provided by the courts as to whether a particular belief qualifies for protection as a religious or philosophical belief. In order to qualify for protection, it should comply with the following requirements:
- The belief must be genuinely held
- It must be a belief, not an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available
- It must be a belief as to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour
- It must attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance
- It must be worthy of respect in a democratic society, not be incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others.
In applying these principles, the courts have held that a number of beliefs may qualify for protection, such as a belief in climate change, a belief in the sanctity of life which extends to an anti-fox hunting belief and a belief in life after death. However, each case will turn on its particular facts and will be assessed by reference to the claimant in question. It does not mean, therefore, that all those against fox-hunting would necessarily hold a philosophical belief qualifying for protection.
Religious discrimination in the workplace
The law prohibiting religion or belief discrimination in the workplace applies to all stages of the employment relationship including recruitment, terms and conditions of employment, promotions, transfers, training and dismissals – and there are a number of ways under the Act in which discrimination may occur.
These include where an employer or prospective employer has directly discriminated against an employee or job applicant by treating them less favourably because of their religion or belief or has discriminated indirectly against them by applying a provision, criterion or practice (such as a requirement to work on Sunday or to comply with a particular dress code) that disadvantages job applicants or employees of a particular religion or belief without objective justification.
Religion or belief discrimination may be permitted in certain limited circumstances. For example, where there is an occupational requirement that an employee be of a particular religion or belief, such as the need for the priest of a Catholic church to be Catholic or for a head teacher to be of a particular religion in certain denominational schools. There are also special rules relating to, for example, the requirement for Sikh men to wear safety helmets if working on building sites.
Where a job applicant or employee has been discriminated against on grounds of their religion or belief, they must bring their complaint to the employment tribunal within three months of the discriminatory act. If the employer is found liable, they may be awarded compensation without limit, which will be calculated according to the financial loss suffered as a result of the discrimination. Compensation may also cover non-financial losses, such as an award for injury to feelings. Where the discrimination has been particularly serious and has resulted in the loss of a job and also the loss of future earnings prospects, the sum awarded may be significant, sometimes amounting to hundreds of thousands of pounds.