OMG! Don’t cross me: religion and belief in the workplace

Earlier this year, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled on various cases relating to the ability of employees to express their religious beliefs within the workplace.  In Eweida and others v UK, the ECHR held that Ms  Eweida had been discriminated against on grounds of religion and belief because her employer had asked her to remove a small cross which she wore.  Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights confers a right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.  The ECHR found that the UK courts (who had previously rejected Ms Eweida’s claims) had placed too much emphasis on her employer’s desire to project a certain corporate image and had not correctly balanced this against Ms Eweida’s right to manifest her religious beliefs.

The three other cases which were heard along with Ms Eweida’s claim were rejected.  For example, in the case of Ms Chaplin, a nurse who had been asked to remove a cross necklace, the ECHR held that the employer had not been guilty of unlawful discrimination because their decision was necessary to protect the health and safety of other nurses and patients.

Given the uncertainty that these decisions has created for employers, the Equality and Human Rights Commission rather helpfully produced some guidance on managing religion and belief in the workplace.  The guidance is available at:  http://www.equalityhumanrights.com/advice-and-guidance/guidance-for-employers/religion-or-belief-new-guidance-february-2013/

In addition to including an explanation of the Eweida judgment, the guidance also offers suggestions as to how employers might handle relevant requests.  Employers should take all requests seriously.  Requests might include employees seeking time off on religious grounds or for variations to uniform policies to allow religious dress/jewellery to be worn.  Employers must consider various factors in deciding whether or not allow a request.  These include: the cost and possible disruption to the business; the health and safety implications; the disadvantage to the employee if the request is refused; the impact of any change on customers; and whether workplace policies to ensure uniformity are justifiable.

Employers must be cautious and deal with all requests in relation to religious beliefs consistently.  If an employer prevents an employee from manifesting their religious belief, they must have objective justification for doing so (going beyond a mere protection of their corporate image).

Jack Boyle
Solicitor – Employment Law

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