• International Workplace
  • 3 January 2017

Religion in the workplace: Government must press ahead with British Bill of Rights

In May 2016, Juliane Kokott, an Advocate General to the European Court of Justice, issued an opinion that said employers within the EU could ban Muslim staff from wearing headscarves as long as other religious symbols were forbidden as well. Now, a report by the independent think tank, ResPublica, has found that religious freedoms such as these are being eroded in modern Britain and need to be enshrined in law.

In Beyond Belief: Defending religious liberty through the British Bill of Rights, ResPublica argues that in a climate of fear and distrust of religion, more needs to be done to protect the freedoms of people of faith. It says the best way to do this is for the Government to press ahead with a British Bill of Rights and include the freedom to express religious belief within it.

The think tank argues that societies which enjoy freedom of expression see a wider range of other fundamental rights such as free speech and freedom of association.

Director of ResPublica, Phillip Bond, said:

“By refusing people the right to wear a cross or headscarf at work we are eroding the good that could be achieved. We hear a lot about the bad things people do in the name of religion but all faiths actually have a role to play in bringing communities together and stopping division.”

As well as the Government committing to a Bill of Rights in the next Queen’s speech, ResPublica also wants the Equality and Human Rights Commission to introduce a Religious Freedom Code of Practice, which would stop disputes in workplaces from happening as a framework would be in place to outline what rights employees have.

Supporting the report, Conservative MP and Parliamentary Chairman of the Conservative Christian Fellowship, David Burrowes, said:

“This report delivers a strong set of recommendations for Government in the light of the future British Bill of Rights, which would be the perfect vehicle for underlining the UK’s commitment to reasonable accommodation of religious belief. I encourage the Government to consider these recommendations carefully.”

The Chief Executive of Care (Christian Action Research and Education), Nola Leach, said:

“As the Government considers the British Bill of Rights, we hope this report will help them consider the many issues facing people of faith as they seek to participate fully in society.

“We must allow for reasonable accommodation for religious belief in UK law so that policymakers and judges can balance the rights and freedoms that different groups individuals are entitled to in the UK most effectively.

“With the tension and division of the Brexit campaign and result still raw this report offers a timely reminder of the need to allow for difference of opinion and free expression of belief.”

The report recommendations include:

  1. Incorporate a duty of reasonable accommodation in the Bill of Rights. Employment in the public sector should no longer compel individuals to behave in ways that a member of their faith would reasonably perceive to contradict their sincerely held religious beliefs. Furthermore, policy-makers should take steps to mitigate the damaging effects of recent legal decisions on the freedom of those who wish to conduct businesses in accordance with their reasonably held beliefs about human sexuality and the institution of marriage. The proposed Bill of Rights provides a unique opportunity to include a positive duty on employers and regulators to demonstrate reasonable accommodation towards those that wish to express their religious convictions in the public sphere.
  2. Commit to introducing a draft British Bill of Rights at the earliest opportunity, which is probably the Queen’s Speech in early 2017.
  3. Specific, targeted support should be given to train employers and service providers to anticipate and prevent disputes from becoming acrimonious. To that end, a Religious Freedom Code of Practice should be devised by the Equality and Human Rights Commission to help employers resolve tensions between religious belief and other protected characteristics. The Code would emphasise the value of seeking practical solutions, including making appropriate accommodations in the distribution of work responsibilities and underlining the importance taking reasonable efforts to identify which employees would be prepared to execute tasks that are likely to compromise the sincerely held beliefs of other employees.