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Religious discrimination: Your obligations as an employer

A recent High Court ruling prohibiting the inclusion of prayers on a Council meeting agenda has put issues of religious tolerance squarely back on the news agenda. However, employers can be unclear about just what the law says about religious discrimination, and who is protected.

It is against the law to discriminate against anyone on the grounds of their religion or belief, or lack thereof. Employers need to ensure that they have policies in place that prevent discrimination in recruitment, pay, selection for promotion, training, and discipline or grievance handling. Employees are also protected against discrimination on the grounds of not holding a particular religious belief, or any religious belief at all.

However, recent cases have demonstrated some grey areas around the area of religious discrimination. Firstly, the law does not list exactly what does and does not constitute a religion or belief. Legally, this is defined as any religion, religious or philosophical belief - which can include all major religions, as well as less commonly held ones - although in practice this definition can be open to different interpretations.

Employers can also find it difficult to strike a balance between treating all employees equally, while being responsive to the needs of individuals on the grounds of religion of belief. To avoid potential conflict, many employers opt to implement a complete ban on any religious expression at work, and such bans have so far been upheld at tribunal. Nevertheless, employers need to act carefully in such situations to ensure that they are complying with the law, and should consider whether there might be a good business case for allowing a degree of flexibility.

Acas can visit your organisation to assist in addressing a range of issues related to equality and diversity and then work with you to develop practical solutions. The Acas equality and diversity advisory service is also on hand to offer advice and support.

Visit the Acas training and business solutions area for more information.

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