Martin Brewer and Stuart Craig go behind the headlines
The first religious discrimination case to reach the Employment Appeal Tribunal, involving a train driver who was asked to trim his beard, passed off without controversy, mainly because the claimant was unable to demonstrate that he had been less favourably treated on grounds of his religion. The same was not true for Ms Azmi, a teaching assistant at a Yorkshire primary school, whose claim was heard by Leeds employment tribunal last year.
Ms Azmi’s claim was about the school’s decision to refuse to allow her to wear a veil when teaching in the classroom. It was accepted that the ban on covering the face while teaching had an adverse effect on Muslim women, but the school’s argument that the ban was justified was accepted. It was able to show that it had consulted Ms Azmi fully, evaluated her teaching both with and without the veil, and taken advice from educational specialists before insisting on the ban. This decision will not be the final word on the matter, because Ms Azmi has now taken her case to the EAT.
The other main development is the implementation of the provisions of the Equality Act dealing with religious discrimination. From 6 April 2007 the provisions of the Religion or Belief Regulations (which currently only apply to employment, vocational training and education) will be extended to the provision of goods and services. The definition of religion or belief will be widened slightly, mainly to make it clear that discrimination on the grounds that someone does not have a particular religion or belief is also prohibited.
The first case on sexual orientation to reach the EAT was a bit of an anticlimax. Rather than having to apply the law, it ordered a rehearing due to procedural failures by the original tribunal. But there have been a number of cases of interest at employment tribunal level, typically focused on bullying of male homosexual employees where significant sums of compensation have been awarded. It appears that in some quarters blatant harassment of homosexual employees still continues, and it will be some time before the Sexual Orientation Regulations generate the necessary change in workplace culture. Employers would therefore be well advised to ensure that line mangers’ equality training is up to date, and that there is an effective antiharassment policy in place.
The Sexual Orientation Regulations are also being extended to goods and services on 6 April 2007. This time the provisions are not in the Equality Act itself, but will be made by subordinate legislation. This gave the House of Lords an opportunity to debate the equivalent regulations for Northern Ireland, which took effect on 1 January 2007. A motion to annul those regulations failed, but at the time of going to press the Government is still considering what further exemptions should be inserted in the regulations that will apply to the rest of the UK. One example is the debate about whether Catholic adoption agencies should be given an exemption.