Religious Discrimination

Discrimination based on religion or belief takes place when someone is discriminated against, victimised or harassed on the basis of their religion or belief. Religion means any religion, and it includes those with no religion. It covers those who hold or do not hold a philosophical belief. Therefore believers and non-believers have the same rights. The definition of a religious belief is controversial and fluid but generally wide.

There are four types of religious or belief discrimination:

  1. Direct discrimination: This is less favourable treatment because of religion or belief. Discrimination can occur even where both the discriminator and the person being discriminated against hold the same religious or philosophical belief.
  2. Indirect discrimination: This can occur when an employer applies a policy, practice or procedure to all workers which particularly disadvantages a group of workers who are of the same religion or hold the same beliefs. For example, a Jewish employee finishes early on Fridays to observe the Sabbath but her employer introduces a new policy that early finishes can only occur on Mondays. This could be indirect discrimination. For religious reasons, many employees want or feel obliged to wear certain items, such as turbans, hijabs, crosses or bangles. Employer dress codes prohibiting this may be discriminatory, unless they can be objectively justified. 
  3. Harassment: Harassment can occur when unwanted conduct related to religion has the purpose or effect of violating someone’s dignity or creating an intimidating, humiliating, hostile or offensive environment. For example, an employee making offensive comments relating to religion when he sees a particular colleague could be harassment.  
  4. Victimisation: Victimisation occurs when someone is subjected to a detriment because they have made a complaint or raised a grievance about discrimination (or they intend to) or because they are assisting someone else who has complained about discrimination for example by giving evidence in proceedings (or they intend to). Examples of victimisation include dismissing, passing over for promotion or not giving a bonus to an employee because that employee has submitted a complaint about discrimination

Compensation for discrimination is uncapped, meaning the Tribunal can award a substantial amount. The compensation can take into account financial losses and ‘injury to feelings’, intended to compensate the victim for the stress and anxiety suffered as a result of the employer’s unlawful acts of discrimination. The amount of an award may be increased if the employer has acted in a particularly malicious manner. 

Religion and belief can create some particular problems for employers when it comes to dress codes. For information on this, see our recent article

Other issues can arise in relation to working hours. Employers are not obliged to give time off or provide facilities for religious observance; however they should try to accommodate this where possible. It is best practice and often good for business for employers to be sensitive to the cultural and religious needs of their workers. This might mean allowing for flexible working, providing prayer rooms and meeting different dietary requirements in staff canteens.

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