The largest ever public consultation carried out by the Equality and Human Rights Commission has found widespread public confusion and misunderstanding about the laws protecting freedom of religion or belief.
The Commission wanted to find out what people experience in their day to day lives following extensive media and public debate about how people are able to express their religious and other beliefs. Often that included how to deal with the right to express beliefs which others might view as offensive.
The results of the consultation will inform a report on the adequacy of the laws protecting religion or belief to be issued later this year. The Commission will also be producing guidance for employers and people who provide services to the public.
Nearly 2,500 people responded to the call for evidence. They included people holding a wide range of religious beliefs as well as humanists, secularists and atheists, and covered employers and workers across the public and private sectors.
The largest number of responses came from Christians from a number of denominations. Some reported that they feared their religion is losing its place in the workplace and in society more generally.
A recurring theme among some employees was the pressure they felt they were under to keep their religion hidden at work and feeling discriminated against when it came to wearing religious symbols or expressing their beliefs. This was particularly felt by Christians.
People reported being mocked for their beliefs including Christians, who said their colleagues assumed they were bigoted. Jewish and Muslim participants said they found it hard to get time off work, even as part of their normal annual leave, for religious observance. 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 experienced unwanted religious proselytising at work, and they did not have access to counselling support in hospital as chaplains were provided on a religious basis. This group also reported feeling excluded in workplaces which held prayer meetings or events in religious buildings.
The treatment of religion or belief in educational establishments was also a cause for concern. Christian parents reported their children being ridiculed in schools for their beliefs – for example for believing that God created the world. Humanist parents also reported their children being mocked – for example one young child being told that he didn’t deserve Christmas presents because he didn’t believe in God.
Some Christian-run services or businesses said they felt ‘in turmoil’ about behaving in ways that they feared might breach the Equality Act 2010, which protects people from discrimination in the workplace and in access to goods and services.
Some religious, and particularly Christian, service providers felt that their contribution to charitable work and social care was being undermined, even to the extent of denying them public funding.
Around half those responding on the issue of the adequacy of current legislation felt that the law should provide greater protection for those with a religion or belief.
As well as the responses about negative experiences, some employers and employees reported no or few issues relating to religion or belief in their workplace. One reason for this was that inclusive work environments had been created which were supportive of religion or belief. Another reason was that religion was treated as a private matter only.
Mark Hammond, CEO of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said:
“How the law deals with religion and other beliefs in work, in providing services and in public debate has become a matter of considerable controversy. We carried out this consultation to gather first-hand evidence of how people deal with this issue in the workplace and in service delivery.
“What we found from the responses we received was a complex picture of different opinions and experiences. However, what came out strongly was the widespread confusion about the law, leading to some resentment and tensions between groups and anxiety for employers who fear falling foul of what they see as complicated equality and human rights legislation.
“We also found examples of organisations which had taken a constructive approach to dealing with issues of religion or belief, with employees providing positive experiences of diverse and inclusive workplaces. We’ll use this evidence as we examine how effective the law is in this area and develop guidance which we hope will help everyone address some of the issues which have come out of the consultation.”
Examples of independent experiences and views expressed in the report include:
- “The wearing or ‘showing of’ a crucifix, rosary or any other Catholic jewellery was forbidden, yet nose rings, tongue piercings and tattoos were ok.” (Catholic participant)
- “The teacher replied that people who are 'religious nutters' are those who believe that God created the universe. [My daughter] told him that as a Christian she believes that God created the universe to which the teacher ridiculed her in front of the class.” (Christian)
- “As an unmarried woman, I was told I was not allowed to talk to the children about my 'condition [pregnancy]', and that I would struggle to gain a promotion in any local school. I was also advised to wear a pretend wedding ring.” (Humanist teacher)
- “My employer, a firm of accountants, informed me after I had been working for several months, that I would not get promotion to Partner unless I attended office prayers and practised as an evangelical Christian.”
- “When I organised a Christmas party a couple of employees objected on the basis that the use of the word Christmas would promote a religious belief. We had to agree upon 'an End of Year Party/Christmas Party according to your beliefs'. I was offended but the boundaries have become unclear.” (Manager in a Law Firm)
- “I appreciate minority groups may in the past feel that they were dealt with in an intolerant manner. For that I am truly sorry. However, you cannot allow the pendulum to shift so far in the opposite direction so to now limit the employment opportunities for those actively practising a religion… It seems unfair, if not hypocritical. A balance of mutual respect must be found.” (Middle Manager, Public Health Sector)
- “My son, aged eight, was called over by a Dinner Lady and asked if he believed in God. When he said no she told him he didn't deserve any Xmas presents. I made a written complaint to the Head Teacher, but was told the dinner lady had said her comments were a joke and she was not able to discuss the incident further.” (Humanist))
- “[My partner, who was in hospital] explained she didn't want a priest … and was told that no Humanist Chaplain was available; and therefore no help was available for the non-religious.” (Atheist)
- “As a Christian I have in the past been able to use my beliefs as a frame of reference when dealing with issues of un-forgiveness and leadership. I am now conscious of making any reference to my beliefs for fear of the reprisals to my business, such as the loss of a contract. I feel the political climate has effectively silenced the powerful difference I have been able to bring in the past.” (Group Facilitator)
- The Equality and Human Rights Commission is a statutory body established under the Equality Act 2006. It is an independent body responsible for protecting and promoting equality and human rights in Great Britain. It aims to encourage equality and diversity, eliminate unlawful discrimination, and promote and protect human rights. The Commission enforces equality legislation on age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation. It encourages compliance with the Human Rights Act 1998 and is accredited by the UN as an ‘A status’ National Human Rights Institution.
- The Commission’s report, Religion or belief in the workplace and service delivery, can be found here.
- The consultation was carried out between August and October 2014 by NatCen Social Research on behalf of the Commission
- The consultation was designed as a qualitative and not a quantitative study, in order to capture a wide range of experiences and views. However, as the sample was not randomly selected, no claims can be made about the statistical representativeness of the views expressed, and the extent of particular views in the general population.
- In total 2,483 individuals or organisations took part. Christians comprised the highest number of respondents (1,030). This was followed by Atheists (188). Other respondents included Agnostics, Humanists, Jews, Muslims, and those who described themselves as of no religion or non-religious. Relatively few responses came from Buddhist, Hindu and Sikh organisations and individuals.
- The Commission has published the results in full as it committed to do, without giving any weight or value to the different views expressed or suggesting whether any particular view is valid or correct.
- The report includes a wide range of respondents’ opinions. The views of respondents do not represent the views of the Commission.