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
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
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
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."