Weekly dilemma: Religion or belief discrimination

One of my non-religious employees has been distributing literature at work – and messages on our intranet – promoting an atheist organisation of which he’s a member. Some of my employees with religious beliefs have complained about this. How can I stop things getting messy?

One’s own religious beliefs are all well and good, but 2,000 years of history shows that our tolerance for other people’s is far more limited. As the Victorian writer Samuel Butler said: “The three most important things a man has are his private parts, his money and his religious opinions.” This sentiment has now been translated into law (most recently the Equality Act 2010) to the effect that if you respect the third, the employment tribunal will let you keep the other two.

However, respecting a religious belief (including atheism) does not mean allowing it to be used as the justification for conduct that would otherwise be inappropriate or unacceptable in the workplace. Your employee’s pushing of his secular beliefs on his religious colleagues could be as offensive to them as he would find their foisting their views on him. This is regardless of how well-intentioned the employee’s actions may be, and whether his proselytising is carried out on the intranet, noticeboard or in person. The strength of his and his colleagues’ beliefs is also irrelevant.

So long as you maintain a consistency of approach (ie, you would not allow such conduct by the holder of any other belief) then you are fully entitled to prohibit the use of the intranet for the expression of personal and religious views. Remember that recent cases have brought strong adherence to the disparate principles of environmentalism and anti-hunting within the protection of religion or belief discrimination law.

Almost any strongly held belief has the potential to annoy or offend if preached or espoused excessively to a person who does not agree with it. As such, you should not limit your prohibition only to comments in relation to the “traditional” religions. Regardless of whether or not a particular belief falls technically within the religion or belief protections of the Equality Act, a prohibition on using the employer’s time or facilities to advance it is probably a wise move anyway. You can broadly ignore any counter-arguments based on rights to freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and so on, since all of these rights will normally be read as conditional upon their exercise not infringing the rights and freedoms of others.

The answer in your case is, therefore, to issue an instruction to all staff that the intranet, noticeboard and so on are not to be used for the expression of personal beliefs. Make it clear that this is quite without disrespect to the holders of such beliefs, and that the instruction does no more than recognise that what may be fundamental tenets of one’s existence to some of your employees may merely be irritating or provocative to others.

David Whincup, partner and head of employment, London, Squire Sanders Hammonds

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