The Equality and Human Rights Commission has published the results of its call for evidence on the laws protecting freedom of religion or belief as Religion or belief in the workplace and service delivery: Findings from a call for evidence. Nearly 2,500 people, from a wide range of belief and non-belief, responded to the consultation, which has found a widespread degree of public confusion and misunderstanding about religion, belief and the law.
The largest number of responses came from Christians from a number of denominations, some of whom reported that they feared that their religion was losing its place in the workplace and in society more generally. The key findings are as follows:
- Positive experiences included respondents describing workplaces with an inclusive environment in which employees and employers were able to discuss openly the impact of religion or belief on employees or customers. Some respondents of different religions also reported they were easily able to take time off to celebrate religious holidays.
- Some employees or service users stated that they had experienced no or few negative issues in their workplace or in receiving a service, attributing that to the view of employers and service providers that religion or belief was a private matter that should not be discussed in the workplace or the service.
- Some employees and students stated that they had encountered hostile and unwelcoming environments in relation to holding (or not holding) a religion or belief. The issues raised concerned the recruitment process, working conditions, including wearing religious clothing or symbols, promotion and progression and time off work for religious holidays and holy days. Some reported that particular beliefs were mocked or dismissed in the workplace or classroom, or criticised unwelcome ‘preaching’ or proselytising or the expression of hurtful or derogatory remarks aimed at particular groups.
- Employees and employers reported that requests relating to religion or belief issues were not always fairly dealt with in the workplace; and some called for better guidance on how to achieve this.
- Many participants were concerned about the right balance between the freedom to express religious views and the right of others to be free from discrimination or harassment. Specific issues raised included conscientious objection in relation to marriage of same-sex couples and how to protect employees from harassment and discrimination by staff, customers or service users with a religion. There was a marked divergence of opinion about when it was desirable and appropriate to discuss religious beliefs with service users during the delivery of a service.
- A group of service providers with a religious ethos expressed concerns about reductions in public and private funding opportunities.
- Some participants took a favourable view of the current law on equality and human rights in relation to religion or belief, arguing that it provided a single robust framework to deal with discrimination and equality. Others were broadly favourable but felt that a pluralistic approach had not yet gone far enough. A third group viewed the law negatively, with some Christian employers, service users and providers considering that Christianity had lost status as a result of the legal framework.
- Some Jewish and Muslim participants said they found it hard to get time off work for religious observance, even as part of their normal annual leave. Others alleged that they were excluded from meetings or passed over for promotion or recruitment due to their beliefs and felt unable to raise the issue for fear of repercussions.
- Humanists and atheists reported that they had experienced unwanted religious proselytising at work and that they did not have access to counselling support in hospital because chaplaincy was essentially religious. They also reported feeling excluded in workplaces which held prayer meetings or events in religious buildings.
- Both Christian and humanist parents reported their children being ridiculed in schools for their beliefs.
The Commission will be drawing on the findings to produce guidance on the Equality Act 2010 and the Human Rights Act 1998 and the results of the call for evidence will inform its report on the adequacy of the laws protecting religion or belief which it intends to publish later in the year.