Protect your staff against religious discrimination

Religion, be it belief or lack of belief, is one of the main protected characteristics set out by the Equality Act 2010

First published on Thursday, Jun 04, 2020

Last updated on Friday, Jun 14, 2024

It’s against the law to discriminate against anyone because of their religion — all workers and job applicants are protected.

Which religions are protected?

Today’s UK is a diverse culture, full of people practising many different religions and holding many different beliefs. Some are major religions such as the Church of England, some are smaller sects like Scientology, and some are philosophies of non-belief such as atheism. All of these are protected, but which others are?

The answer is that there’s no official list. Guidance from the Employment Appeal Tribunal says that the belief must:

  • Be genuinely held
  • Be a real and valued aspect of human life and behaviour
  • Achieve a certain level of seriousness, continuity and importance
  • Be worthy of respect in a democratic society, compatible with human dignity and the fundamental rights of others

Employees cannot therefore simply invent their own religion and use it to make a religious discrimination complaint.

What kinds of discrimination are covered?

Many forms of religious discrimination are covered by the Equality Act, including:

  • Direct discrimination: Treating someone less favourably because of their religion, for example by not hiring them, firing them, not promoting them, or denying them opportunities offered to other employees.
  • Indirect discrimination: Having rules that apply to everyone but which disadvantage workers of certain faiths. For example, banning types of clothing that some religions require.
  • Harassment: Unwanted behaviour linked to an employee’s belief, which violates their dignity or creates an offensive environment.
  • Victimisation: Unfairly treating an employee because they have complained about religious discrimination.

Religious discrimination protection during recruitment

Your recruitment and selection processes must not discriminate against anyone because of their religion.

  • In job adverts, you can’t require or exclude certain religions (direct discrimination) or state other requirements that exclude people of certain religions (indirect discrimination)
  • At no point during recruitment can you ask candidates about their religion or belief

How must you accommodate employees’ beliefs?

You should try to accommodate employees’ religious beliefs and customs wherever possible. This means taking reasonable action to meet the employee’s needs. An example might be allowing an employee to use a spare office as a prayer room, if you have one available and it doesn’t disrupt work.

You don’t have to give employees time off for religious observance. Nor do you have to put in place special facilities to help employees observe their faith.

When can employees claim religious discrimination?

An employee who feels they’ve suffered religious discrimination can bring a claim to an employment tribunal at any time. Acas guidance suggests they talk to their employer and try to resolve the matter informally first.

Your organisation is responsible for religious discrimination carried out by your employees, unless you can show you did everything you reasonably could to prevent it.

When is religious discrimination allowed?

In some cases, special requirements or observing religious faith requires an organisation to discriminate.

For example:

  • A centre for religious worship, such as a church or mosque, might restrict hiring of leaders to people who practice their faith
  • A football club that requires all staff to work Saturdays might reject Jewish applicants who wish to observe the Sabbath

Lucy Cobb

Employment Law Specialist

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