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Now covered by the Equality Act 2010 race discrimination, in common with several other strands of discrimination, prohibits direct or indirect discrimination. Direct discrimination, where someone is treated less favourably than another because of their religion or belief, cannot be justified in court. ‘Religion or belief’ means any religion, religious belief or similar philosophical belief. It is apparent then for the definition of ‘religion’ to be satisfied, some form of collective worship must be present plus a clear belief system or a profound belief that affects the ways of life of followers or their views of society around them.

By contrast ‘religious beliefs’, also covered by this discrimination strand are not exclusively about a god or gods and the category includes philosophical beliefs. A ‘philosophical belief’ could be any belief that is sufficiently serious and has an affect on the ways of life of the followers of that belief. An example of a philosophical belief for these purposes could be someone who is passionate about climate change. This is still relatively young legislation and so case law is in the process of defining ‘beliefs’ and to what extent they should be regarded as protected under discrimination legislation.

Religion or religious belief discrimination can, in common with many other strands of discrimination, occur directly or indirectly.

Indirect discrimination occurs if you apply a provision, criterion or practice (PCP) equally to everyone but the provision, criterion or practice puts persons of a particular religion or religious belief at a particular disadvantage when compared to other persons not of that religion or religious belief. Indirect discrimination can be justified if the employer can show that the PCP is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.

Some examples may help to unravel what can be quite a complex subject.

Employer A, a protestant, rejects all job applicants who are Catholic. This is direct discrimination and cannot be justified.

Employer B has an active social programme for employees that always includes participation in events where the central theme involves partaking in alcohol. This effectively excludes devout muslims who are prevented by their religion from taking alcohol, and therefore feel isolated at the events. This is indirect discrimination and is unlikely to be justifiable.

Employer C insists that all employees work over an important religious festival. This puts those people belonging to that religion at a disadvantage and so is indirectly discriminatory. The employer may be able to justify this if he can show that the requirement to work over the festival was a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim, i.e. of the needs of the business, where all hands were required on deck, and where other solutions which would have enabled the release of the employees who belonged to that religion could not reasonably be applied by the employer.

Typical employment law pitfalls

As well as obvious cases of direct discrimination less obvious examples can sometimes happen though a lack of awareness of the implications of a person’s beliefs and the impact these have on their lives. Some examples we have come across include:

  • Incentive prizes for performance consisting of alcohol (excluding non drinking religions)
  • Serving inappropriate food to ethnic groups with particular dietary requirements/insufficient options
  • Planning particular events on days that coincide with major religious festivals
  • Unreasonably refusing holiday for people to attend important religious events

The usual 1 year minimum continuous service requirement for bringing claims at an employment tribunal does not exist in the case of unlawful discrimination.

Help & Support

If a religion or religious belief related dispute is apparent or a complaint is made or you think might be made, please contact us straight away.

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