As Eid is celebrated by Muslims across the UK, many employers will have to deal with the question of time off for religious festivals.

More than 5% of the population (more than 2.6 million people) are Muslim, and this number is growing. As a result, fasting, religious festivals and religious dress are all issues which more and more employers must be sensitive to. In addition, the Equality Act 2010 protects a wide range of other beliefs in addition to religious beliefs – for example, the beliefs of a climate change environmentalist, an opponent of fox hunting and a supporter of BBC broadcasting have all been protected by the courts in recent years.

So how should employers navigate their way through the maze of religion and belief discrimination? Last month, ACAS published new guidance on religion or belief discrimination in the workplace.

As employers may have found leading up to the Eid celebrations, approving holiday requests in an even-handed manner can be extremely difficult. In the UK, there is no obligation on employers to give time off for religious festivals. However, a refusal to approve a request in circumstances in which the business could function satisfactorily if the request were to be approved, could well lead to a finding of discrimination.

Difficulties arise where there is a large number of requests for time off during a particular period. For example, if Eid were to fall during peak school holiday season, an employer may have to decide who should be allowed to take time off and who should be required to work. .The employer must not favour the needs of one religious group over another – and indeed, the needs of a religious group should not necessarily override any other good reason for granting leave, such as the necessity to take time off to care for children during the school holidays. ACAS recommends that the employer should anticipate the issue in advance, and where possible, consult its staff via recognised Trade Unions or its Employee Council about how the competing holiday requests should be handled. Allocating holiday using an annual rota may be appropriate – and almost certainly fairer than using a “first come first served” approach, or treating one group of staff (for example, parents of school age children) more favourably than others.

The ACAS guidance highlights a number of other issues that may arise in the workplace in relation to religion and belief. Some of these have become more prevalent in recent years, and include the following:

  • Dress codes – should an employee be allowed to wear a crucifix on a chain, or a long flowing garment at work? The answer will depend on factors such as whether this raises a health and safety issue – a ban on these items in a factory may be perfectly appropriate, whereas there may be no proper reason to ban them in an office environment;
  • Fasting – should employees be encouraged to tell their employer that they are fasting? If they do so then this gives the employer the opportunity to consider allowing flexibility on working hours, and also to be more understanding if work performance dips for a short period of time;
  • Job duties – how should employers deal with a situation in which an employee is not able to handle meat, alcohol or contraceptives for religious reasons? A large supermarket may be able to pass this work on to other colleagues, whereas an owner of a small corner shop may be simply unable to accommodate the request without disrupting the business or placing too much extra work on other staff;
  • Prayer rooms – is an employer required to provide a prayer room for employees? Whilst there is no obligation to do so, an outright refusal where there is a spare room available, or where other communal areas are provided for staff to eat lunch and socialise, could well be discriminatory.

The key themes in the ACAS guidance are that employers should be reasonable when handling requests, should try to accommodate employees’ religion and other beliefs, and make allowances where this is possible without causing too much disruption to their business.

Once Eid is over, employers will be turning their attention to the World Cup and to employees asking for time off to watch the matches. I wonder, is a belief in the primacy of football capable of protection under the equality legislation? Answers on a postcard please…

If you would like to discuss any issues raised in this article, we have specific employment law expertise in advising in this area. For further advice, please contact Louise Connacher, Partner in our award winning Employment Department.

Please note this information is provided by way of example and may not be complete and is certainly not intended to constitute legal advice. You should take bespoke advice for your circumstances.

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