The Daily Mail wrong on religion and belief at work
Last Sunday the Daily Mail reported that: “Druids, vegans and green activists should be given special treatment at work, according to ‘lunatic’ advice from the equalities watchdog.”
The “lunatic” advice was some fairly straight forward guidance published by Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) on 18 February 2013 – 49 days earlier – on how employers should approach a request from employees based on their religion or belief.
The Mail’s main gripe seems to be that the beliefs of “fringe and non-religious groups” and are “put on a par” with Christians when it comes to the workplace. But how do you decide what a fringe group is?
The Mail thinks it’s vegetarians, who make up at least 3% of people in the UK. But that’s a lot more than the 0.5% of people who follow Judaism which I’m sure the Mail doesn’t mean to exclude. Of course such numbers should have absolutely nothing to do with whether a religion or belief should be protected.
The courts instead have found that for a religion or belief to gain protection under the law it must be: (i) more than an opinion or a viewpoint; (ii) serious, genuinely and sincerely held: (iii) worthy of respect in a democratic society; and (iv) compatible with human dignity and should not conflict with the fundamental rights of others.
But the Mail goes even further in saying that these “fringe and non religious” groups are given “special treatment”, while the rights of Christians are “still strictly limited”.
The Commission’s guidance says that the law applies to “employees with any religion or belief, or none”. No special treatment there.
As for Christians having their rights “strictly limited”, the irony here is that the Commission guidance is reporting on recent cases out of Europe that strengthen the rights of Christians (and all) to express their religion or belief in the workplace.
Let me here depart from the content of the Mail’s article by talking about what the law says. In the key case, Nadia Eweida, an airline check-in officer was prevented from wearing a visible cross when in uniform at work. The domestic courts said that the employer was justified in banning the cross to protect its corporate image, partly because wearing a cross was not a requirement of Christianity.
But the European Court of Justice disagreed. It found that a person can express their belief if they are “motivated or inspired” to do so, and not just because such expression is a mandatory requirement of that religion. Wearing a cross is not a requirement of Christianity, but it certainly is a genuine expression of someone’s Christian faith. The Court also found that wearing a cross did not adversely affect the airline’s corporate image.
The only significant criticism I could find of the guidance online (prior to the Mail’s story) came not from Christians but from the National Secular Society criticising the EHRC for including an example of… a Christian nurse being allowed to offer prayers for a patient. The Mail must have missed that one in its 49-day hurry to go to press.
The Mail also reports “Environmentalists should be free to lecture other staff about their car use” according to the guidance. Is this is a bad thing? Or should the nanny state step in to ban people from expressing their beliefs in tea rooms across the country?
Of course, people should only be allowed to express their beliefs at work as long as they aren’t denying others their rights or disrupting the business. This is where a difficult balancing act is required: an employer should accommodate a belief but can refuse to do so if this is a “proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim”. A legitimate aim could be a business concern or protecting the rights of others. Here trade unions are concerned that religious expression does not infringe on the rights of others, particularly in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities. It is this difficult balancing act which only underlines the need for guidance.
One MP quoted in the Mail piece is less welcoming of the guidance: “We need small businesses to be able to thrive, not to be weighed down with this sort of nonsense.” But this “nonsense” aims to help businesses to avoid “complex, costly and damaging litigation”. The beleaguered EHRC can’t win: if it didn’t publish guidance, it would probably get slammed for not helping an employer who stumbled into a legal mess.
In a similar piece run two days ago by the Mail, even Europe gets a bashing, with all this trouble blamed on “new European laws”. By “new European laws” they can only mean the EU’s Equal Treatment at Work Directive of 2000. Or perhaps Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights which came into force on 3 September 1953 in the wake of the horrors of World War Two?