Tribunals are no place for religious preaching

A consultation has begun on how the UK should enact EU legislation
protecting employees from discrimination over their religious or philosophical
beliefs, including humanism.

Minister for Women Barbara Roche announced last week that employers will
have to review policies and terms in response to the new laws from December
2003.

The principle of protecting staff from religious discrimination is a sound
one. You have only to look at the negative impact of sectarianism in the
workplaces of Northern Ireland, or the negative experiences of many British
Muslims to see there is a need for employers to improve their record in this
area.

In practice, however, the new rules could prove highly problematic to
implement. The difficulty of defining what is a legitimate religion or belief
system could force firms to accommodate not only relatively well established
groups such as Rastafarians or Jehovah’s Witnesses, but, in theory, also groups
such as Scientologists, anarchists or even fringe cults such as Jedis.

It would be nice to think that common sense would prevail and employees will
only make ‘fair and reasonable claims’ as outlined in the draft legislation.
Experience of previous employment legislation, however, suggests this may not
always be the case. And an employment tribunal is not the right place to start
a philosophical debate about whether something is a legitimate religion or not.

Another problem is that the legislation is so wide ranging that it
effectively protects everybody and could therefore be unworkable.

To avoid the law leading to the latest silly season of employment tribunals,
the Government has a responsibility to provide more guidance to employers about
what is fair and reasonable and give examples of good and bad practice in this
area.

Noel O’Reilly is editor of Personnel Today

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