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Religious discrimination at work stems from confusion over law, says Commission

13 March 2015


Deliverance: Orthodox Jewish children celebrate Purim, in Stamford Hill, north London, last week 

Deliverance: Orthodox Jewish children celebrate Purim, in Stamford Hill, north London, last week 

THERE is "widespread public confusion and misunderstanding about the laws protecting freedom of religion or belief," the Government-funded Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has said after its "largest-ever" public consultation.

The EHRC said that nearly 2500 people responded to the consultation. The largest group of these were Christians, who said that "they feared their religion is losing its place in the workplace and in society more generally."

It found that some Christians felt pressurised to keep their religion hidden at work, and feeling discriminated against when it came to wearing religious symbols or expressing their beliefs. Christian respondents also reported that "their colleagues assumed they were bigoted." Jewish and Muslim respondents found it hard to get time off work for religious observance.

By contrast, humanists and atheists complained of "unwanted religious proselytising at work", and said that, because religious chaplains were provided, they did not have the same access to counselling support. They also felt excluded in workplaces that held prayer meetings or events in religious buildings.

In light of the findings, the EHRC says it will now prepare a report on "the adequacy of the laws protecting religion or belief" as well as "guidance for employers and people who provide services to the public".

The EHRC's chief executive, Mark Hammond, says of the report's findings that the action of the law on religion and beliefs in work and in the provision of public services has become "a matter of considerable controversy".

He said: "What came out strongly was the widespread confusion about the law, leading to some resentment and tensions between groups and anxiety for employers who fear falling foul of what they see as complicated equality and human rights legislation.

"We also found examples of organisations which had taken a constructive approach to dealing with issues of religion or belief, with employees providing positive experiences of diverse and inclusive workplaces."

The study has been welcomed by religious groups. "When rights conflict, the test of equality legislation is whether it results in genuinely fair outcomes for everyone," Don Horrocks, the head of public affairs at the Evangelical Alliance, said. "If one group of protected rights is consistently trumped by others, then equality is not working.

"Equality is important, but unless it is expressed fairly in the context of recognised diversity, then it can become oppressive, and end up being wielded as a blunt weapon to silence those we disagree with."

The Christian Legal Centre has supported many claimants alleging religious discrimination through the courts. Its chief executive, Andrea Williams, said: "The current approach to equality and diversity is often failing on its own terms. Rather than bringing people together it is pitting one group against another. Rather than help build cohesive workplaces marked by genuine relationships it is all too often creating fragile, superficial workplaces where people feel that they need to hide their true identity, and cannot speak about things that matter most to them."

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