ACAS has published new guidance to assist employers in preventing workplace discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief.

The new guidance, which is available here, includes helpful advice on the potential for discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief in the workplace.

It covers a wide range of employment situations, policies and practices which might lead to discrimination, including recruitment, dress codes, religious holidays, working on holy days, prayer during the working day, food, fasting and drinking alcohol.

There is also a helpful reminder of the different forms of unlawful discrimination. The guidance highlights the need to ensure that apparently neutral policies do not inadvertently disadvantage those with a certain belief (indirect discrimination). It also reminds employers that discrimination can happen when someone wrongly assumes an employee has a particular faith (discrimination by perception) or when an employee is associated with someone else from a particular religion, for example through marriage or friendship (discrimination by association).

The guidance makes clear that the Equality Act 2010 also protects those who do not practice a particular religion or who have no religion. It also provides some assistance with the kinds of philosophical beliefs which will be protected.

There is considerable uncertainty from the case law about what kind of philosophical beliefs will and will not be protected under the Act. According to case law, protected beliefs are those which are genuinely held; more than an opinion; relate to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour; clear; cogent; serious; important; worthy of respect in a democratic society; compatible with human dignity; and do not conflict with the fundamental rights of others. Humanism, atheism and agnosticism are broadly accepted to qualify as protected beliefs.

The courts have ruled, in particular cases, that a belief in climate change, a fervent opposition to fox-hunting, a profound belief in the proper and efficient use of public money in the public sector and a belief that lying is always wrong are capable of being protected under the Act. Whereas a belief that a poppy should be worn in early November and a conspiracy theory that certain terrorist attacks were authorised by the US and UK governments have been held not to be protected.

The new guidance helps raise awareness of situations where discrimination can arise, regardless of intention, and is helpful in alerting employers to both potential pitfalls and best practice.