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EHRC report reveals confusion over workplace freedoms

20 March 2015


Observance: Orthodox Jewish children celebrate Purim, in Stamford Hill, north London, at the start of this month  

Observance: Orthodox Jewish children celebrate Purim, in Stamford Hill, north London, at the start of this month  

THERE is "widespread public confusion and misunderstanding about the laws protecting freedom of religion or belief", the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has said, after it had carried out its "largest ever public consultation".

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

In its report Religion or Belief in the Workplace and Service Delivery, summarising the responses, the EHRC said that some Christians felt under pressure to keep their religion hidden at work; and said that "their colleagues assumed they were bigoted."

Jewish and Muslim respondents found it hard to take time off work for religious observance. Humanists and atheists complained of "unwanted religious proselytising at work", and said that, because chaplains were provided on a religious basis, those without faith did not have equal access to counselling.

The report, published last week, is a summary of all the responses rather than a carefully weighted study. The EHRC says that, in light of the responses, 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 chief executive of EHRC, Mark Hammond, says that the interaction 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 . . . 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 that 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," the head of public affairs at the Evangelical Alliance, Don Horrocks, 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 . . . 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 through the courts many claimants who have alleged religious discrimination. Its chief executive, Andrea Minichiello 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."

The Church of England did not provide a response.

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