What is religion or belief discrimination?
This is when you are treated differently because of your religion or belief, or lack of religion or belief, in one of the situations covered by the Equality Act.
The treatment could be a one-off action or as a result of a rule or policy. It does not have to be intentional to be unlawful.
There are some circumstances when being treated differently due to religion or belief is lawful, explained below.
What the Equality Act says about religion or belief discrimination
The Equality Act 2010 says you must not be discriminated against because:
- you are (or are not) of a particular religion
- you hold (or do not hold) a particular philosophical belief
- someone thinks you are of a particular religion or hold a particular belief (this is known as discrimination by perception)
- you are connected to someone who has a religion or belief (this is known as discrimination by association)
In the Equality Act religion or belief can mean any religion, for example an organised religion like Christianity, Judaism, Islam or Buddhism, or a smaller religion like Rastafarianism or Paganism, as long as it has a clear structure and belief system.
The Equality Act also covers non-belief or a lack of religion or belief. For example:
- the Equality Act protects Christians if they are discriminated against because of their Christian beliefs, it also protects people of other religions and those with no religion if they are discriminated against because of their beliefs
What qualifies as a philosophical belief?
The Equality Act says that a philosophical belief must be genuinely held and more than an opinion. It must be cogent, serious and apply to an important aspect of human life or behaviour. For example:
- an employee believes strongly in man-made climate change and feels that they have a duty to live their life in a way which limits their impact on the earth to help save it for future generations: this would be classed as a belief and protected under the Equality Act
The Equality Act also says that a belief must also be worthy of respect in a democratic society and not affect other people’s fundamental rights. For example:
- an employee believes that white people are a superior race to others and tells their colleagues so: this would not be classed as a belief protected under the Equality Act
Different types of religion or belief discrimination
There are four main types of religion or belief discrimination.
This happens when someone treats you worse than another person in a similar situation because of your religion or belief. For example:
- a bank refuses you a loan because you're Jewish
Discrimination can occur even where both the discriminator and the person being discriminated against hold the same religious or philosophical belief. For example:
- a Hindu businessman interviews two women for a job as his personal assistant. One is Hindu and the other is not religious. The Hindu woman is the best candidate at interview but he gives the job to the other woman because he thinks his clients (who are mainly Christian or have no religion or belief) will prefer it. This is direct discrimination because of religion or belief
Indirect discrimination happens when an organisation has a particular policy or way of working that applies to everyone but which puts you at a disadvantage because of your religion or belief. For example:
- you are Jewish and you finish early on Fridays in order to observe the Sabbath. Your manager has changed the weekly team meetings from Wednesday afternoons to Friday afternoons and you are therefore often absent
Indirect religion or belief discrimination can be permitted but the organisation or employer must be able to show that the policy or way of working is necessary for the way the business operates. This is known as objective justification.
Can I object to a workplace dress code or uniform policy that is against my religion?
Everyone has a human right to manifest their religion or belief under the European Convention on Human Rights. That means you have the right to wear particular articles of clothing or symbols to show that you have a particular religion or belief at your workplace, even if other people of your religion don’t. For example:
- some people wear a crucifix to show they are Christians, but not all Christians do
However because that human right is a qualified right an employer can prevent you from wearing particular articles of clothing or symbols if it is necessary for the role you are doing. For example:
- a teacher is asked to stop wearing a floor length garment because it is a trip hazard. If this is necessary to protect health and safety in the workplace and there is no practical alternative, this may be justified
- a Sikh man works in food preparation. His employer has a policy that no headgear can be worn and staff must use hair nets. This would not be justified if there was a practical alternative that met the business’s health and safety requirements, such as wearing a new or freshly washed turban for each shift
Harassment in the workplace occurs when someone makes you feel humiliated, offended or degraded.
Harassment can never be justified. However, if an organisation or employer can show it did everything it could to prevent people who work for it from behaving like that, you will not be able to make a claim for harassment against it, although you could make a claim against the harasser.
The rules about Harassment don’t apply outside the workplace. However, if you are harassed or receive offensive treatment because of religion or belief outside the workplace this may be direct discrimination. For example:
- a Muslim man visits his local takeaway regularly. Every time he goes in, one of the staff makes comments about him being a terrorist. He finds this offensive and upsetting
This is when you are treated badly because you have made a complaint of religion or belief related discrimination under the Equality Act. It can also occur if you are supporting someone who has made a complaint of religion or belief related discrimination. For example:
- a woman at work has been harassed by a supervisor because she wears a hijab. Her co-worker saw this happen and is supporting her harassment claim. The co-worker is threatened with the sack. This would be victimisation because the co-worker is supporting her colleague’s claim of harassment
Circumstances when being treated differently due to religion or belief is lawful
A difference in treatment may be lawful in employment situations if:
- belonging to a particular religion is essential for the job: this is called an occupational requirement. For example: a prison chaplain serving Methodist prisoners may need to be a member of that faith
- an organisation is taking positive action to encourage or develop a group of people with a religion or belief that is under-represented or disadvantaged in a role or activity
- a faith school appoints some of their teaching staff on the basis of their religion
- an organisation with an ethos based on religion or belief is restricting a job opportunity to people of their religion or belief. For example, a Humanist organisation which promotes Humanist principles and beliefs could specify that their Chief Executive must be a Humanist. However restricting a job opportunity to people of a certain religion or belief is not lawful unless the nature or context of the work demands it
- the circumstances fall under one of the other exceptions to the Equality Act that allow employers to provide different treatment or services based on religion or belief
A difference in treatment may be lawful in situations outside the workplace such as if:
- a faith school is using religious criteria to give priority in admissions to children from a particular religion.
- a religious or belief organisation is restricting its membership or participation in its activities, or the provision of goods, facilities and services to persons of a particular religion or belief. This only applies to organisations whose purpose is to practice, promote or teach a religion or belief, whose sole or main purpose is not commercial. A restriction can only be imposed:
- if the purpose of the organisation is to provide services to one religion or belief
- if it is necessary to avoid causing offence to persons with the same religion or belief as the organisation
- an organisation is taking positive action to encourage or develop a group of people with a religion and belief that is under-represented or disadvantaged in an activity
- the circumstances fall under one of the other exceptions to the Equality Act that allow organisations to provide different treatment or services based on religion or belief
If you believe you have been discriminated against you can check in one of our codes of practice to see whether any other exceptions apply.
Last updated: 19 Feb 2020