Law guide: Workplace

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Religious belief and political opinion discrimination

Religious belief and political opinion discrimination

Religion, belief or political opinion discrimination

It's against the law for an employer to discriminate against you or anyone you associate with because of your (or their) actual or supposed religion, religious belief or similar philosophical beliefs. It is also unlawful to discriminate against you because you are not religious or you have an absence of religious or philosophical beliefs.

Employers have an additional obligation not to discriminate against their workers because of their actual, supposed or absence of political opinion.

What is the definition of 'religion', 'belief' and 'political opinion'?

The anti-discrimination regulations define 'religion' or 'belief' as any religion, religious belief or philosophical belief. There is no definitive list of recognised religions. To be recognised as a religion, there must be a clear structure and belief system, although if it is not recognised as a religion it may still be recognised as a philosophical belief.

The definition of 'political opinion' specifically excludes an opinion which consists of or includes approval or acceptance of the use of violence for political ends connected with the affairs of Northern Ireland, including the use of violence for the purpose of putting the public in fear.

Types of discrimination

Direct discrimination

This happens where you are treated less favourably than another worker because of your own religion, beliefs or political opinion, when compared with another worker of a different religion, belief, or political opinion, but who otherwise shares the same or similar (but not materially different) circumstances as you (known as a 'comparator').

The comparator's circumstances do not need to be identical to yours (in terms of the type of job, job level, job experience and seniority, etc.) but they must not be wholly dissimilar. If you cannot find a suitable comparator, then a 'hypothetical comparator' can be used instead, who would be deemed to have the same employment as you (such as your title, role, level, etc.). A Fair Employment Tribunal has the power to decide the particular circumstances of a hypothetical comparator (such as their personality).

The law also extends to protecting you if your employer treats you less favourably based on:

  • Their perception of your religion, beliefs, or political opinions, regardless of whether or not the perception is correct. For example, you may have been subjected to religious discrimination if you are refused a promotion because your employer perceives you to belong to a particular religious group, but your colleague is promoted and their circumstances are similar to yours, except that your employer doesn't have the same perception about their beliefs.
  • The religion, beliefs, or political opinions of another person (also known as discrimination by association). For example, if you are able to establish that you are being treated less favourably because your spouse is a member of a political party or you have been dismissed because you refused to comply with instructions that would require you to discriminate against someone because of their religion, beliefs or political opinion, then this may amount to direct discrimination

Your employer could be liable for a direct discrimination claim even if there was no intention to discriminate against you.

Your employer can't defend a claim of direct religious discrimination by 'justifying' it (arguing that their actions were a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim). There is, however, an exception whereby direct discrimination is allowed in circumstances where it is required in order to comply with another law, or a genuine occupational requirement. For example, a Roman Catholic school may be able to restrict applications for a scripture teacher to baptized Catholics.

Usually, the only available defence to a direct discrimination claim is proving that there was no discrimination.

Indirect religious discrimination

This is where formal or informal working practices, provisions or criteria that your employer applies equally to all workers, puts a group of workers who share the same particular religion, belief, or political opinion, at a particular disadvantage when compared with other workers. It does not matter whether or not this has been done intentionally. For example, if your employer introduced a dress code which requires all workers to go bare headed, those who are Sikhs (and who have to wear turbans as part of their faith), would be discriminated against and would potentially have grounds for an indirect discrimination claim.

Your employer can defend against indirect discrimination claims by justifying the use of the unlawful practice, provisions or criteria, if it can show that its application is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.


Harassment on the grounds of religion, belief, or political opinion, happens when another employee or your employer engages in unwanted conduct that has the purpose or effect of violating your dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, humiliating, degrading or offensive environment. Harassment could also occur if the unwanted conduct relates to characteristics associated with religion, belief, or political opinion. For example, you live in a Catholic neighbourhood and receive unwanted conduct on the basis that you are a Catholic, even if it is known that you are not.

Furthermore the unwanted conduct will be harassment even where it was not intended to be harassing. If it is reasonable to regard the unwanted conduct as having a harassing effect, it will be unlawful.

Note that you will not be protected by the regulations if you are over sensitive and unreasonably take offence to an innocent comment.

Employers can't defend claims of harassment on the grounds that the actions were reasonable or warranted. Employers will be liable for any harassment suffered in the course of employment, regardless of whether they knew about it or not, if they fail to take reasonable steps to prevent it. 'In the course of employment' in this case means 'done to you while at work' or 'done to you during work time'. Employers can't defend a claim of harassment by showing that they did not authorise it.

An employer can, however, escape liability for harassment, if it took reasonably practicable steps to prevent it.

You have the right not to be bullied or made fun of at work or in a work-related setting because of your religion, belief, or political opinion. You may also be protected if you're bullied in the mistaken belief that you're a member of a particular religion or political party. For example, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, some Sikhs have suffered abuse because they were mistakenly thought to be Muslims.

For more information, see our section 'Bullying in the workplace'.


Victimisation happens when you are being treated less favourably than another employee because:

  • You have asserted your rights under legislation relating to religion, belief or political opinion discrimination
  • You gave evidence or information in a complaint made by another worker regarding discrimination on grounds of religion, belief or political opinion
  • You have taken any other action under legislation relating to religion, belief or political opinion discrimination
  • You have alleged that your employer or another worker has contravened the legislation relating to religion, belief or political opinion discrimination
  • Your employer knows that you intended to do, or suspects that you have done or intend to do, any of these things

For example, you might have grounds for a victimisation claim if you are prevented from going on training courses; subjected to unfair disciplinary action; or excluded from company social events; while comparable employees who did not take the action you did are not subjected to such treatment.

Employment practices and religion

Giving information to your employer

  • You don't have to give information to your employer about your religious beliefs, but if you do, it will help them meet the needs of religious employees. Any information you give should be confidential (and anonymous, if possible).

Time off and facilities

  • Employers don't have to provide time off and facilities for religious observance (e.g. a prayer room), but they should try to do so where possible. For example, if there's a suitable room you should be allowed to use it, provided it doesn't disrupt others or your ability to do your job properly.
  • Organisations should consider carefully whether they are inadvertently discriminating indirectly. For example, if team meetings always take place on a Friday afternoon, this may discriminate against Jewish and Muslim staff, for whom Friday afternoon may have a particular religious significance. Employers will not escape liability in a Fair Employment Tribunal by showing that discrimination was inadvertent or accidental.

Religious holidays

  • If you want time off for religious holidays, ask well in advance. Your employer should consider your request sympathetically – but they can refuse if it will affect the business.


  • If you wear clothing or jewellery for religious reasons, your employer should make sure any dress code doesn't discriminate against you. A flexible dress code is usually possible, as long as health and safety isn't at risk.


  • Some religions don't allow you to eat certain foods. If you don't want to handle such food (for example, if you work in a supermarket and don't want to handle pork), speak to your employer. They might be able to manage your request, provided it doesn't affect the business.

Religion and sexual orientation in the workplace

  • You may have particular views on sexual orientation because of your beliefs. However, people shouldn't treat, for example, gay or lesbian colleagues differently. In the workplace, everyone has the right to be treated with respect, no matter what their sexual orientation.

Positive action

Positive action occurs where an employer does something in favour of one group of employees and not the other. This will obviously result in discrimination against the other employees. Positive action is therefore only permitted under the anti-discrimination laws where certain exceptions apply. Positive action is lawful where employers provide the following to persons of a particular religion or belief, to prevent or compensate for disadvantages linked to that religion or belief, which such persons might suffer when doing the work:

  • Access to facilities for training which would help equip them for the particular work;
  • Encouragement to take advantage of access to opportunities for promotions or transfers.

This does not mean that employers can discriminate in favour of the members of the group when it comes to choosing people to do the work or fill the posts, as that could be unlawful discrimination.

What to do next

If you think you've been discriminated against because of your religion, belief or political opinion or you have a religious requirement that isn't being met, you can talk to:

  • Your employer
  • Your human resources department
  • Your trade union representative (if you belong to a union)

Keep a written record of any bullying or harassment.

If possible, try to resolve the matter informally, but if not, you can follow your employer's grievance procedure. If your employer doesn't have a grievance procedure, you should set out your complaint in a letter and hand it to your line manager. If your line manager is the problem, then hand your letter to your HR manager or your line manager's supervisor. Your employer should then arrange a grievance meeting with you. If the outcome of the meeting is unsatisfactory, you have the right to appeal to a manager who was not previously involved in your grievance. For more information, see our article on Grievance procedures in Northern Ireland.

As a last resort, you can apply to a Fair Employment Tribunal. You must take legal advice before doing so. Your application must be lodged within three months of the act of discrimination taking place. If the discrimination extends over a period, you must bring your claim within 3 months from the end of that period.

Further information

You can get more information from the Labour Relations Agency (LRA), which offers free, confidential and impartial advice on all employment rights issues. The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland can help with advice regarding discrimination and equal opportunities.

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