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
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
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
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
"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
The Church of England did not provide a response.