This article was written for the Spring 2004 issue of the OUT-LAW magazine Whether it is on the streets of Belfast or the terraces of an Old Firm football match in Glasgow, the stain of sectarianis...

This article was written for the Spring 2004 issue of the OUT-LAW magazine

Whether it is on the streets of Belfast or the terraces of an Old Firm football match in Glasgow, the stain of sectarianism is hard to shift from the fabric of some parts of our society.

True, these are extreme manifestations of a cancer most hoped had died out. However, away from the terraces and streets of Ulster, religion has become a defining issue. The War on Terror has split opinion about Islam. As immigration increases, workplaces are becoming more multicultural with a broader range of religions and beliefs which should be respected in any tolerant, liberal society.

Until recently, most employers were under little more than a moral imperative to respect and accommodate diverse faiths and beliefs. Employees who considered that they had been treated less favourably, or harassed or victimised on the grounds of their religion had little legal protection.

This changed in December 2003 with the introduction of the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003 making it unlawful to treat job applicants and employees less favourably because of their religion or beliefs.

For most employers compliance should be straightforward, although diversity awareness training may be required for management and employees. For example, the majority of UK workplaces are geared around western Judaeo-Christian culture, customs, diet and calendar. To avoid falling foul of claims of indirect discrimination, employers will now have to be more flexible with dress codes, leave for bereavement, canteen menus and responding to requests for leave to celebrate particular religious festivals. (See the ACAS website for helpful details on common beliefs and customs.)

The Regulations also create the risk that employers could become liable for harassment of employees, even if done without their knowledge or approval. This could prove to be the biggest potential liability for company bosses, although there is a defence for employers if their employees' actions were unauthorised and the employer took such steps as were "reasonably practicable" to prevent the actions.

So what steps should an employer take now? I would recommend amending equal opportunity policies to include religion or belief and providing training to make sure that employees understand the new rules. You should amend disciplinary procedures on harassment and make it clear that religious harassment is a disciplinary offence. Also adapt grievance procedures to provide a complaint mechanism for employees who consider that they have been discriminated against.

As with most employment legislation, there are vague aspects to the Regulations. Where do moral or political beliefs end and religious beliefs begin, for example, and how can an employee's freedom to express their religious belief be reconciled with another employee's right to not to be subjected to harassment?

These and other ambiguities will no doubt be clarified by courts and employment tribunals in the coming months. In the meantime, all employers should acquaint themselves with the new obligations, weigh up the profile of the staff and work out whether there might be claims just waiting to happen.

For more information on this topic and employment issues in general contact: [email protected]

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