The Equality Act 2010 makes it unlawful to discriminate against anyone on the grounds of what are known as ‘protected characteristics’. ‘Religion or belief’ is counted among the nine protected characteristics.

What is a religion or belief?

Legally defining ‘religion’

The term ‘religion’ covers a broad spectrum.

Widespread organised faith systems such as Christianity, Judaism, or Islam are the most readily identifiable, as well as less widely adopted religions or sects such as Paganism or Scientology.

The key is that the religion should have a clear structure and belief system.

However, within a legal context, it should be noted that a lack of any religion is also included under the term ‘religion’.

Some belief systems considered by others to be ‘cults’ may also fall within the definition of a religion.

A place of worship, which is often at the centre of a religion or belief

Legally defining ‘belief’

A ‘belief’ must be genuinely held and not an opinion. It must be both serious and relate to an important part of human life or behaviour. It should also be worthy of respect, be acceptable within a democratic society, and not affect other people’s fundamental rights.

A ‘belief’ does not need to be a religious standpoint. It can include ‘philosophical’ beliefs, as well as having no beliefs at all.

Examples of beliefs that may amount to a protected characteristic include humanism and atheism.

What is accepted as a ‘belief’?

Whether someone’s beliefs are held to be protected characteristics will depend on the unique circumstances of each case. Case law has led to certain beliefs being accepted, but not others.

For example, the beliefs of climate change activists and fox hunting opponents have been judged to meet the criteria.

Vegetarianism and wearing a poppy in the lead up to Remembrance Sunday have been found not to be sufficient to warrant protection under the law.

Political beliefs are not included under the definition.

What does religion or belief discrimination look like?

It is important to note that it is not only unlawful to discriminate against someone because of the religion they practise or beliefs they hold.

It is also against the law to discriminate against someone because:

  • you think they identify with a certain religious group or hold certain beliefs (aka ‘discrimination by perception’)
  • they happen to be with or know someone who is of a specific religion or holds certain beliefs (aka ‘discrimination by association’).

Treating someone unfavourably because they are not religious is also a form of discrimination.

Types of discrimination

Discrimination based on a religion or belief can occur in four distinct ways:

  • direct discrimination
  • indirect discrimination
  • harassment
  • victimisation

Direct discrimination

It is unlawful for an employer to discriminate against an employee by treating them less favourably than others on the grounds of religion or belief. An example would be someone passed over for a job interview or promotion because of their religion.

In some limited circumstances, discrimination may be allowed where a job requires someone of a particular religion or belief. For example, a faith school may require a head teacher who is of the corresponding faith.

Children praying at a school, where religion or belief discrimination may be exercised for certain staff roles

Indirect discrimination

This can be deemed to have occurred when a practice or policy is in place that puts someone in the workplace at a disadvantage due to their religion or belief.

There are four elements to this type of discrimination:

  1. The policy or practice applies equally to a group of employees, only some of whom have the protected characteristic.
  2. The policy or practice puts, or would put, those who share a protected characteristic at a disadvantage, when compared to others without that characteristic.
  3. The employee concerned was actually put at a disadvantage by the policy or practice
  4. The employer is unable to justify the disadvantage.

The employer must be able to show that the policy or practice is proportionate, appropriate, and necessary.

For example, a practice whereby employees must work on a Sunday may indirectly discriminate against practising Christians. Likewise, a policy that states employees must have short hair may indirectly discriminate against Rastafarians.


‘Harassment’ is unwanted conduct which has the purpose or effect of:

  1. violating the victim’s dignity, or
  2. creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for the victim.

This conduct or behaviour includes:

  • bullying
  • nicknames
  • threats
  • intrusive or inappropriate questioning
  • deliberately excluding someone.

It can be verbal, written, or physical.

It’s no defence to say that the behaviour was not meant to be harassment, i.e. it was just ‘banter’ or ‘fun’.

Whether it was reasonable for the victim to feel harassed will be considered.

It is possible for an employee who was not a direct victim to complain about harassment if they witnessed the harassment, and it had a negative impact on them.

Employers are also potentially liable for harassment of their staff by third parties, such as clients, customers, or suppliers.

Workers witnessing bullying in workplace over religion or belief


This occurs where an employee suffers a ‘detriment’ (something that causes disadvantage, damage, harm, or loss) because they:

  • made an allegation of discrimination
  • supported a complaint of discrimination
  • gave evidence relating to a complaint
  • did anything else in connection with the Equality Act.

Who is liable for religion or belief discrimination under the Act?

Liability for discrimination extends beyond the actions of the employers themselves. They may be held liable for the actions of employees, if those employees are acting in the course of their employment.

The protection provided by the Equality Act covers all areas of employment including recruitment, selection, promotion, training, and remuneration.

It also extends to all kinds of employees, including part-time workers, trainees, agency staff, and even some self-employed contractors.

Getting legal advice about religion or belief discrimination at work

In addition to being upsetting and personal, discrimination on grounds of religion or belief can raise complex issues.

If you are concerned that you have been the victim of discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief, or you have witnessed discrimination in your workplace that has gone unaddressed by employers, it may help to seek professional legal advice.

At Springhouse Solicitors, our team of employment law experts are on-hand to provide their experience in dealing with cases involving workplace harassment and discrimination of employees with protected characteristics. For an initial conversation, get in touch with us today.

Published in…

Updates: For employers: Bullying and harassment | Discrimination | For employees: Bullying and harassment | Discrimination |

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