The interaction between religion and employment law has hit the headlines in recent months. The issues that arise are of particular relevance to the retail sector given its diverse workforce, the 24/7 trading culture and the use of dress codes for customer-facing roles. Religious discrimination was outlawed in December 2003 and cases are beginning to trickle through the tribunal system.
One issue yet to be conclusively determined by the tribunals is whether imposing a policy which restricts an individual’s right to “manifest his religious belief” should be viewed as direct or indirect discrimination. Only indirect discrimination is capable of being justified by the employer. In the widely-reported case of the teaching assistant suspended for refusing to remove her veil when assisting amale teacher, this was held to be indirect discrimination and was justified by the special nature of the role (requiring children to be able to see hermouth) and the impossibility of rescheduling her classes so that she only worked with female teachers. The employee was reported to be considering an appeal and has since been dismissed, so this is unlikely to be the end of thematter. In any event, the employer in this case had a particularly strong justification defence andmost retailers would find itmuch harder to justify a non-veil policy (Azmi v KirkleesMetropolitan Council). Meanwhile, BA has also got into trouble over its policy of prohibiting visible jewellery, thereby preventing a Christian employee openly wearing a small cross. This raises the question of whether an employee who chooses to wear items to publicly proclaimher faith has the same protection as an employee who believes she is required by her religion to wear certain items.
Of course dress codes are not the only problemarea. Shift systems requiring employees to work on days of the week prohibited by their religion or requests for time off to attend religious festivals all need to be properly considered, with employers needing to accommodate employees wherever possible. Religion, like somany HR issues, needs to be handled with