• Sara Bean
  • 25 March 2015

Employers confused over laws protecting religion

The largest ever public consultation carried out by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has found widespread public confusion and misunderstanding about the laws protecting freedom of religion or belief, particularly the Equality Act 2010, which protects people from discrimination in the workplace and in access to goods and services.

The Commission wanted to find out what people experience in their day to day lives following extensive media and public debate about how people are able to express their religious and other beliefs. Often that included how to deal with the right to express beliefs which others might view as offensive.

Nearly 2,500 people responded to the call for evidence. They included people holding a wide range of religious beliefs as well as humanists, secularists and atheists, and covered employers and workers across the public and private sectors.

The largest number of responses came from Christians from a number of denominations. Some reported that they feared their religion is losing its place in the workplace and in society more generally.

A recurring theme among some employees was the pressure they felt they were under to keep their religion hidden at work and feeling discriminated against when it came to wearing religious symbols or expressing their beliefs. This was particularly felt by Christians.

People reported being mocked for their beliefs including Christians, who said their colleagues assumed they were bigoted. Jewish and Muslim participants said they found it hard to get time off work, even as part of their normal annual leave, for religious observance. Others alleged that they were excluded from meetings, or passed over for promotion or recruitment due to their beliefs and felt unable to raise the issue for fear of repercussions.

Commented Suzanne McMinn, International Workplace’s HR Director:

“The concept of amalgamating all discrimination legislation into the Equality Act in 2010 was to allow a fair and transparent easier approach for employers, employees, workers and applicants in combating discrimination in whatever format.

“However this consultation shows that, rather than ease the issue, it has confused them particularly on the grounds of religion and belief.

“Rather than [the legislation] promoting the diverse religions and beliefs that we have within our nation, the research has uncovered a fear of discrimination and recrimination within work and society.

“A small step to overcome this is educating people in the workplace to understand the different religions and belief systems that are around within their company, not to just tolerate the difference but embrace it, understand it and value the diverse approach that it can bring.”

Humanists and atheists reported that they experienced unwanted religious proselytising at work, and they did not have access to counselling support in hospital as chaplains were provided on a religious basis. This group also reported feeling excluded in workplaces which held prayer meeting or events in religious buildings.

Some Christian-run services or businesses said they felt ‘in turmoil’ about behaving in ways that they feared might breach the Equality Act 2010.

Added Suzanne McMinn:

“Employers and employees often now tread in fear of upsetting someone with regards to their religion or belief. Or go the complete opposite and ignore any and all requests made to accommodate any changes made on religious grounds. Neither approach is helpful or in line with the details laid out in the Equality Act.”

Around half of those responding on the issue of the adequacy of current legislation felt that the law should provide greater protection for those with a religion or belief.

As well as the responses about negative experiences, some employers and employees reported no or few issues relating to religion or belief in their workplace. One reason for this was that inclusive work environments had been created which were supportive of religion or belief. Another reason was that religion was treated as a private matter only.

Mark Hammond, CEO of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said:

“How the law deals with religion and other beliefs in work, in providing services and in public debate has become a matter of considerable controversy. We carried out this consultation to gather first-hand evidence of how people deal with this issue in the workplace and in service delivery.

“What we found from the thousands of responses we received was a complex picture of different opinions and experiences. However, what came out strongly was the widespread confusion about the law, leading to some resentment and tensions between groups and anxiety for employers who fear falling foul of what they see as complicated equality and human rights legislation.

“We also found examples of organisations which had taken a constructive approach to dealing with issues of religion or belief, with employees providing positive experiences of diverse and inclusive workplaces. We’ll use this evidence as we examine how effective the law is in this area and develop guidance which we hope will help everyone address some of the issues which have come out of the consultation.”

The results of the consultation will inform a report on the adequacy of the laws protecting religion or belief to be used later this year. The Commission will also be producing guidance for employers and people who provide services to the public.