Employees’ religion or beliefs don’t usually have an impact in their workplace, and actual claims are rarer still. Race and sex discrimination (to take two examples) are much more prevalent in society than discrimination based on religion or belief, but cases involving the latter provoke strong opinions and naturally get more publicity. The Times recently reported on the Pagan Police Association (external website), whose members have now (apparently) been given the right to take time off to celebrate their various festivals.
The article includes a quote from an MP, who states that “it sounds like some kind of prank”, and is fairly typical of how issues such as this are reported. It would have been more useful for the Times to have quoted an employment lawyer or senior HR professional on the matter, which is surely a good example of best practice on equality in the workplace.
In the article, a former Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner states his difficulty in understanding “why representative groups have been springing up at such an alarming rate”. Although I’m not sure I agree that the increase (if there even is one) is “alarming”, one obvious reason is that employees are more aware of their employment rights than ever, and that minority groups are prepared to use their voice.
No doubt many people would be surprised at the Pagan Police Association’s success, and might even agree with the MP’s comments, but as far as employment law goes -provided the religion or belief in question meets certain criteria - a unique religion or belief held by just a single person will have the same degree of protection as Islam or Christianity. If an employer treats one protected religious or belief group differently from another, it may well face discrimination claims.
Employers (and commentators) need to remember that the law against discrimination isn’t designed to cover only the most widespread of religions or beliefs - and the case of Power v Greater Manchester Police Authority is a recent example of a minority belief system gaining protection. Mr Power’s belief in spiritualism was held by a tribunal - correctly, the Employment Appeal Tribunal stated - to be protected under discrimination law, and the Employment Appeal Tribunal found that if his employer’s decision to dismiss him was motivated at least in part by that belief, it would likely be unlawful discrimination.
You can find objective and informed analysis on religion and belief discrimination on the XpertHR website - without the hyperbole - including dozens of FAQs, including:
- Should employees who practise faiths other than Christianity be given additional annual leave to enable them to celebrate religious festivals?
- Should employees who practise religions other than Christianity be given additional time off in lieu where a bank holiday is aligned to a Christian festival such as Easter?
- How are employees protected from dismissal under the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003?