THE Government’s equalities watchdog has rejected calls that it be made a legal requirement for employers to allow their employees to manifest religion or belief in the workplace. The All-Party Christians in Parliament group recommended the move in their 2012 Clearing the Ground report (News, 2 March 2012); and last week the Beyond Belief report by ResPublica and Care called for “reasonable accommodation” to be incorporated into a new Bill of Rights (News, 2 December).
But in a report on religion in the workplace, Religion or Belief: Is the law working?, published last Friday, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) said that a legal requirement for employers to demonstrate reasonable accommodation “would not lead to substantial additional protection”.
In its report, the EHRC said: “There is nothing in the existing law which prevents an employer making an accommodation, unless doing so would breach discrimination law or other legal requirement such as health and safety legislation.
“Employers should already seriously consider every request made for reasons relating to religion or belief, both as a matter of good practice and to avoid the risk of indirect discrimination. They should only turn these down if they have objective reasons for their decision that can be justified.”
The report goes through recent high-profile legal cases, including that of Lillian Ladele, the Islington registrar who was dismissed for refusing to officiate at civil-partnership registrations because same-sex relationships conflicted with her Christian beliefs (News, 18 January 2013).
The EHRC said that the informal arrangement between her colleagues which meant she did not have to officiate at civil partnerships was unlawful.
“Our view is that in the public and private sectors, employees are legally required to provide goods, facilities or services in the same way to all members of the public, regardless of the member of the public’s sexual orientation, age, sex, gender identity, race, disability or religion or belief,” the EHRC said. “If an employee refuses to do so, they would be directly discriminating against the member of the public because of a protected characteristic.”
The report says that the majority of cases so far have involved the relationship between a religious employee and their employer. It predicts that the “relatively unexplored” reverse position, cases involving religious employers and their employees, “has the potential to be a significant area”.
It calls for employers and employees to adopt “a common sense approach” to religion in the workplace.