Should employees who practise faiths other than Christianity be given additional annual leave to enable them to celebrate religious festivals?

There is no obligation to give employees of faiths other than Christianity additional annual leave to allow them to celebrate their religious festivals. Giving extra holiday to employees of certain faiths may amount to direct discrimination against other employees. While some of the bank holidays in the UK are aligned to Christian festivals (Christmas and Easter) they are statutory bank holidays. However, many employees, including Christians, will be required, or may be able to opt, to work on these days.

While there is no right to additional annual leave, employers should act in a flexible and non-discriminatory manner in terms of approval of annual leave for those who are seeking time off to celebrate their own religious festivals. This is to avoid the risk of a claim for indirect discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief.

In JH Walker Ltd v Hussain and others [1996] IRLR 11 EAT the employer imposed a rule that no holiday should be taken in the May to July period. This coincided with the Muslim religious festival of Eid. A number of Muslims brought a claim for indirect race discrimination and were successful. (Note that this claim pre-dated the coming into force of the specific protection against religion or belief discrimination. Employees are now more likely to rely on the the religion or belief discrimination provisions of the Equality Act 2010 than the race discrimination provisions.)

The employees were successful in their claim because it was found that the employer had imposed a condition that adversely impacted on a greater number of Muslims. Although the employer believed that it was acting for a sound business reason, the employment tribunal found, and the Employment Appeal Tribunal agreed, that it had not balanced the needs of the business against the needs of the employees, particularly as the employees had offered to work extra hours to reduce any backlog.