The recent, extensive coverage in the press regarding religious dress in the workplace has caused employers great concern.
Civil rights lobbyist Liberty has described the case of Aishah Azmi, the classroom assistant suspended for wearing a veil, as creating a "political furore".
The subsequent case of Nadia Eweida, a British Airways employee who is threatening legal action after being told she could not wear a crucifix necklace with her uniform, has served only to fuel the debate.
In reality, Azmi's case does not set any new precedent in this emotive area, and it is important to separate moral arguments from the legal question of discrimination. Employers need to be careful, however, to ensure that they do not leave themselves vulnerable to claims of religious discrimination, where tribunals can apply unlimited damages.
Religious discrimination regulations came into force on 2 December 2003. Last year there were 307 claims.
The regulations prohibit direct and indirect discrimination, discrimination by way of victimisation or harassment in the workplace by reason of "any religion, religious belief or similar philosophical belief".
The definition covers those religions that are widely recognised in the UK (such as Christianity, Islam and Hinduism) and other collective religions (such as Scientology). From 6 April 2007, the definition will be broadened further so that any genuine philosophical belief, including political belief, will be covered by the regulations.
Employers should ensure a policy is assessed from the perspective of all religions. It is also important to recognise that the regulations apply to prospective, actual and former employees.
Indirect discrimination occurs where an employer applies a provision, criterion or practice which puts people of a particular belief at a disadvantage, unless that practice or policy can be objectively justified. Indirect discrimination is unlawful whether it is intentional or not.
Having a policy of 'no head-wear' or 'men must not have ponytails' may expose an employer to a claim for indirect discrimination as it disadvantages Sikh and Hindu employees.
The hurdle for employers to overcome is to show that such policies are ju