Religion or belief

The meaning of religion or belief under the Equality Act is broad, as it aims to follow the European Convention on Human Rights which guarantees freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

As well as applying to holders of religious or philosophical beliefs it also applies to a lack of such beliefs. It is for the courts to determine what constitutes a religion but to be protected it must have a clear structure and belief system. A belief is defined as affecting the way a person lives their life or perceives the world but does not require the worship of a god or gods. To be protected by the Act a belief must:

• be genuinely held

• be a belief and not an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available

• be a belief as to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour

• attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance

• be worthy of respect in a democratic society, not incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others.

• The final point is important as it answers the question about what happens when a religious belief clashes with a protected characteristic such as sexual orientation.

The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that demonstrating religious beliefs, e.g. through wearing a crucifix, does not have to be a core part of someone’s faith and to refuse to allow such a demonstration of belief must be objectively justified, e.g. on health and safety grounds. 

It is possible to indirectly discriminate – e.g. banning headscarves at work would indirectly discriminate against Muslim women who are more likely to wear a headscarf for religious reasons. The Court of Appeal has ruled that, provided the employer can show objective justification, it is not indirect discrimination to require a Christian to work on a Sunday even if the employee believes that resting on a Sunday is a core part of their religious beliefs.

The EAT has found that philosophical beliefs carry the same weight as religious beliefs. Non-religious beliefs that have been accepted by the courts include humanism, sanctity of life – incorporating an anti- hunting belief – and that public service broadcasting has a higher purpose of promoting cultural interchange and social cohesion. However, the courts rejected a belief in consensual slavery and a belief that people should wear a poppy from 2 November to Remembrance Sunday.