Items of jewellery or apparel worn by an individual for religious reasons or as articles of faith have often been a source of potential conflict between employers and employees. A recent case on this topic reported in a variety of different sources caught my eye.
The case involved a Sikh, Jagdip Dhinsa, who was employed by Serco for three weeks as a prison officer. He requested to be allowed to wear his kirpan, a ceremonial dagger that is worn as a religious symbol by initiated Sikhs, while on duty. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this request was rejected on the grounds that it breached the statutory prison service orders that enforced a blanket ban on the wearing of a kirpan by anyone other than a Sikh prison chaplain. The potential risks from a health and safety point of view given the context of Mr Dhinsa's job was also a factor.
Mr Dhinsa raised a claim alleging that he had been indirectly discriminated against on the grounds of race and his religion. The Employment Tribunal who heard the case came to some important conclusions in their judgment. They firstly rejected his claim for race discrimination holding that Mr Dhinsa (as an Amritdhari (baptised Sikh)) was not part of a distinct ethnic group capable of being discriminated against.
Turning to the question of discrimination on the grounds of religion, the Tribunal found that the wearing of a kirpan could amount to a distinct religious belief. However in a carefully considered and detailed judgment, the decision by Serco was held to be justifiable as it was a proportionate means of achieving the legitimate aim of protecting the safety of staff, members of the public and prisoners. A factor the Tribunal noted was that Serco had not applied the policy "blindly" but had consulted with other stakeholders and considered temporary alternative roles for Mr Dhinsa.
Cases such as this one reinforce the importance for an employer to be able to justify having policies that arguably disadvantage minority groups and to be able to demonstrate that those policies are proportionate to achieving their legitimate aims.