Discrimination at work on grounds of religion and belief

What is the law that governs discrimination on grounds of a person’s religion or belief in the workplace?

The law relating to discrimination in the workplace on grounds of a person’s religion or belief is contained in the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003.  

On 8 April 2010 the Equalities Act 2010 was passed. However, since it was considered necessary to allow time for people and organisations affected by the Equalities Act 2010 to prepare for the new law, only a few provisions of the Act came into force that day. It is currently envisaged that most of the main provisions of the Act will come into force in October 2010, although since there has been a change of government since the Act was passed this is currently not clear. 

When the Equalities Act 2010 does come into force the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003 will be revoked in their entirety.

What is the definition of religion and belief?

The Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003 define “religion” as being any religion including a lack of religion and “belief” as any religious philosophical belief including a lack of belief. Atheists are, therefore, covered by the Regulations.

What acts are prohibited by the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003?

Under the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003 the following acts are prohibited:

Direct discrimination

Direct discrimination occurs where a person (“A”) discriminates against another person (“B”) and on the grounds of the religion or belief of B or of any other person other than A, A treats B less favourably than he treats or would treat other persons. Discrimination can occur in this manner even if A and B share the same religion or belief.

Indirect discrimination

Indirect discrimination occurs where a person A discriminated against person B and A applies to B a provision, criterion or practice, which he applies or would apply equally to persons not of the same religion or belief, but which puts or would put persons of the same religion or belief as B at a particular disadvantage when compared with other persons, which puts B at that disadvantage, and which A cannot show to be a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.

Discrimination by victimisation

Victimisation occurs where a person receives less favourable treatment than others by reason of the fact that he has brought, or given evidence in, proceedings, made an allegation, or otherwise done anything under or by reference to the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003.

Harassment on grounds of religion or belief

Harassment occurs where a person is subjected to unwanted conduct on grounds of religion or belief which has the purpose or effect of violating his dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for him.

When do the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003 apply?

The Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003 apply to employment, vocational training and the administration of occupational pension schemes.  

The Regulations protect applicants for employment as well as employees. They protect contract workers, office-holders and those applying for such offices, constables, pupil and tenant barristers and those applying for pupillage or tenancy,  partners in firms and those applying for partnership, Crown servants and Parliamentary staff. 

The Regulations also apply to trade organisations, bodies conferring professional and trade qualifications, training providers, employment agencies and institutions of further and higher education.  

The Regulations also extend to acts of discrimination against or harassment of, a person where such acts arise out of, and are closely connected to, a relationship which has ended.

Are all discriminatory acts prohibited?

The Employment Equality (Religion and Belief) Regulations 2003 provide for the following exceptions:

National security

The regulations do not render unlawful any acts done for the purpose of safeguarding national security, if the doing of any such act was justified.

The helping of disadvantaged groups

The regulations do not render unlawful any acts done in or in connection with affording persons of a particular religion or belief opportunities or facilities which prevent or compensate for disadvantages linked to religion or belief suffered by such persons.

Where religion or belief is an occupational requirement

Exceptions are also provided where being of a particular religion or belief is a genuine and determining occupational requirement for a post, or where being of a particular religion or belief is a genuine occupational requirement for a post and it is proportionate to apply the requirement in the particular case.

The wearing of safety helmets by Sikhs

An exception provides for the protection of Sikhs in relation to requirements as to the wearing of safety helmets.

What about acts of other employees?

Anything done by a person in the course of his employment is treated, by the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003, as done by his employer as well as him. This is the case even where an act is done without the employer’s knowledge or approval. It is a defence, however, for an employer to prove that he took such steps as were reasonably practicable to prevent the employee from contravening the Regulations. 

A person who knowingly aids another person to do an act which is unlawful under the Regulations is treated as doing the unlawful act himself.

How are the Regulations enforced?

If a person has been discriminated against it is open to them to bring proceedings in an employment tribunal or in the County Court.