Discrimination on the grounds of religion, belief and sexual orientation will soon be illegal, but legal experts are concerned that it could lead to an increase in workplace disputes. Quentin Reade reports
Impending new laws outlawing discrimination at work on the grounds of religion, belief and sexual orientation will create a 'minefield' of employment tribunal claims.
The proposed legislation, announced by Barbara Roche, the minister responsible for equality, is being introduced to bring the UK in line with existing EU directives and will come into force by December 2003.
The legislation also covers age discrimination, but this aspect will not become law in this country until 2006.
The new laws have been widely welcomed but employment experts warn that the section banning religious discrimi- nation will create problems because of its wide scope - protecting both religions and "similar philosophical beliefs".
Robin Bloom, partner at law firm Dickinson Dees, said the new legislation is sure to generate more employment tribunal claims because the definition of religion is open to interpretation.
"It opens up a new avenue of claims. Some employers won't be prepared and there will be people who want to exploit that. Some people will be looking to push it in some areas," he said.
He said many employers would be unaware that the rules, which are subject to consultation until 24 January 2003, cover areas such as Rastafarianism and Druidism.
Under the legislation the rights of atheists and humanists will also have to be taken into account by employers.
Sue Ashtiany, partner and head of employment law at Nabarro Nathanson, believes that difficulties may arise because some religions "don't sit well" with others and with other workplace rights.
Some areas of Islam, Christianity and Judaism frown on homosexuality, she said, and followers may not wish to work alongside a gay colleague. This would create a conflict of rights - something she believes the Government needs to address.
"What will happen when rights clash?" she said. "That is a matter for the Government."
Ashtiany said HR should start finding out now what faiths their employees belong to, what their rights are under the legislation and, where necessary, how their needs can be met.
Dianah Worman, CIPD adviser on equal