Religion is ‘blind spot’ for discrimination at work, peer claims
Religion is a “blind spot” compared to race, sex and disability in workplace discrimination, a peer has warned.
Lord Alton, 72, a crossbench peer and vice-president of the Catholic Union, claimed that people of faith are being discriminated against at work, adding that they should not feel they need to conceal “an essential part of who they are”.
His comments come as a Catholic Union survey found that four in 10 people do not believe religious discrimination is taken as seriously as that against other protected characteristics such as age, race, sex and sexuality.
Almost a third of people (31 per cent) said they had felt disadvantaged at work because of their faith, according to the survey, with the vast majority of these instances (73 per cent) occurring in the public sector.
Almost half (48 per cent) said they felt unable to talk about their faith openly with colleagues.
The survey also highlighted particular problems in hospitals, universities and the police.
One lay chaplain in an NHS hospital spoke of a “pathological closing down” of chaplaincy work; another responder was subject to a formal complaint for saying “God bless” to a patient.
The Catholic Union has shared the results with Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR), on which Lord Alton sits. The JCHR is carrying out an inquiry into how human rights can be protected at work, including freedom of religion and expression. The deadline for submitting evidence has been extended until April 13.
Lord Alton said: “People of all faiths should not be expected to shed or conceal an essential part of who they are when they go to their place of work. This is not only a point of principle: there are clear legal requirements around religious freedom.
“We are getting better at removing discrimination at work on the basis of race, sex, orientation, and disability, but there is still a blind spot when it comes to religion.
“Religious freedom is so often the canary in the mine for many of the freedoms we enjoy. Ignore discrimination or prejudice and it readily morphs into persecution and, then, in some parts of the world into appalling crimes against humanity. We all lose out if religious freedom is eroded.”
In January last year, a tribunal ruled that Mary Onuoha, a Christian nurse who was “forced out” of her job for wearing a crucifix – which NHS officials accused of being “bacteria-harbouring” – was unfairly dismissed.
The theatre practitioner at Croydon University Hospital, claimed she was “singled out” and “persecuted” for her religion after being ordered to remove her small gold cross, which she has worn for almost 40 years.
She brought a legal case against her former employer of 18 years, Croydon Health Services NHS Trust, on the grounds of harassment, victimisation, direct and indirect discrimination, and constructive and unfair dismissal.
Responding to the results of the survey of 222 people, she said that more needs to be done to protect people with religion at work.
“My cross had to be removed and hidden otherwise I would lose my job whereas other faiths were allowed to display their beliefs without challenge,” she said. “I was treated like a criminal for refusing to comply.
“My small cross around my neck was deemed so dangerous that I was no longer allowed to do my job.
“Going through what I did was a very difficult experience which had a huge impact on me. I am so thankful that I received justice and was vindicated but, as this survey highlights, many Christians are facing difficulties, which is very concerning. I think more must be done to protect Christian beliefs in the workplace.”