Law will put all creeds on an equal footing

By the end of 2003 discriminating against a person on the grounds of their
beliefs will be outlawed. But do we need a law on religious discrimination in
Great Britain? And what changes will HR professionals have to make to existing
anti-discrimination policies? compiled by Sarah-Jane North

Vanessa Chamberlain
Head of employee relations, Bradford & Bingley Building Society

We have already embraced the concept of religious discrimination as both our
equal opportunity policy and fair treatment at work policy cover discrimination
on the grounds of religion. We have also piloted a cultural awareness
programme, which deals with cultural differences including religion.

Specific legislation addressing religious discrimination would be welcomed
as it would add clarity to the current position and provide enhanced protection
for an ever more diverse workforce. This would help ensure that all employees
are treated fairly irrespective of their differences and religious beliefs
giving all equal opportunities at work.

At present a certain level of protection against religious discrimination is
given under the Race Relations and Human Rights Acts. One problem is that the
Race Relations Act only covers religions that fall within the definition of,
and are connected to, "a race". Therefore not all religions are
covered, for example Catholicism, as it is not race-specific.

The HRA provides an individual with the right of freedom of belief and not
to suffer discrimination on the "grounds of religion", among other
things. Unfortunately, it is difficult to apply the HRA in the context of
employment and more importantly the HRA is only directly enforceable against a
public body and not a private employer.

When legislation is introduced all aspects of discrimination should be covered
including direct and indirect discrimination as well as harassment. Northern
Ireland already has religious discrimination legislation in the form of the
Fair Employment (NI) Act. This in itself shows that religious discrimination is
a live issue and that legislation can be effectively put in place to deal with
the problem.

Any changes in the law would not alter life greatly for the personnel
profession as, in dealing with diversity in the workplace and the RRA, they
already have an understanding of how religious beliefs affect working
practices. There would, however, be a potential increase in the number of
tribunal claims.

The only adjustment would be a training need to raise awareness that all
types of religious belief would be covered. Existing policies covering equal
opportunities at work and harassment would need to be updated.

Diane Webber
Chair of the Board of Deputies of British Jews’ working party reviewing
religious discrimination

Jews have some protection from
religious discrimination because case law generated by the Race Relations Act
1976 has decided that Jews are an ethnic group. The Act prohibits
discrimination on racial grounds, and this is defined as "colour, race,
nationality, ethnic or national origins". Many religions do not have such
protection if its followers are not regarded as an ethnic group. The Board
would welcome new legislation which gives more complete protection against
religious discrimination in all areas of life.

One concern is that the wording of the law must allow religious
organisations and schools to employ members of their own faith and to require
employees to observe the rules of the religion and work according to the ethos
of that religion, without fear of being branded discriminators.

Assistant chief executive (personnel & corporate services) at
Nottingham County Council and immediate past president of Socpo

All discrimination is unacceptable.
If it is felt that there is a need to legislate against religious
discrimination then Socpo members would feel fairly comfortable about it due to
the various ways that local authorities already operate to ensure equal

They already provide religious leave and acknowledge the list
of religious leave dates that exists, and make reasonable adjustments to
accommodate dress and other religious requirements.

We are also covered by the Human Rights Act, which clearly
guarantees freedoms such as conscience and religion, and although the rights
have not been clearly tested in the courts, they are pretty strong.

Sue Sadler
Personnel spokesperson at Marks & Spencer

The EU directive outlawing religious
discrimination will not have a huge impact on Marks & Spencer, as we
already have a policy covering the right to freedom of thought, conscience and
religion, as part of our equal opportunities policy.

The policy on religious discrimination was implemented in
response to the Human Rights Act and protects the right of our employees with
regard to their religious beliefs and practices.

We will respond reasonably to any request made by an employee
which could fall under this right. This applies particularly to requests for
time off for religious holidays.

It is difficult to say what changes in current UK law would be
necessary until the Government details how it would interpret

Employee relations adviser, CIPD

Among the issues that will be raised
by putting legislation on the statute books, as we will undoubtedly have to, is
the extent to which an employee will be allowed leave from work to attend
religious services and such like.

Religious discrimination will become more of an issue as the
distinction between work and non-work time becomes more blurred and businesses
strive to operate around-the-clock, year-round. This will raise questions about
an employee’s freedom to resist their employer’s wishes when they wish to be
taking part in some religious observance.

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