Your chance to respond to a major and wide ranging consultation on religion and belief in society

October 21, 2014 - Board of Deputies - Share: Twitter Facebook

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has launched a major and wide ranging  call for evidence from individuals and organisations about how their religion or belief, or that of other people, may have affected their experiences in the workplace and in using the services and facilities they need in everyday life.

The Commission wants to gather as much information as possible from members of the public, employers, providers of services, legal advisors and religion or belief organisations.  This will be used to assess how employers and service providers are taking religion or belief into account and the impact this has on individuals.

The Board urges as many people as possible to give their feedback at www.equalityhumanrights.com/religion.

President Vivian Wineman and Senior Vice President Laura Marks said: “We know from first- hand experience how serious the challenge to be able to practice religion can be, possibly resulting in many observant Jews being forced out of jobs, in particular public sector education. This is our chance to put across how important religion is as a positive right that needs to be understood and respected far more widely in our society.”

Why is the Board calling on community members to take part in the EHRC consultation?

We have been in regular contact with the EHRC for nearly a year. They know us as a cross communal representative organisation whom are greatly concerned with improving religious rights in public settings, particularly at work. They want to help employers and public institutions better understand religious people – of all faiths and of different levels of observance. They also want to unearth the depth and range of issues that people face. Ultimately, this is a chance for faith communities to have our voice heard. We need to shout louder about how important religion is as a positive force in our lives (indeed in a diverse society), as we want it to be appreciated and promoted, not merely tolerated.

What problems are people facing in terms of practicing religion at work?

There are issues that we know come up again and again; for example arranging time off work for Shabbat and for religious festivals is something that affects the vast majority of observant Jews in some shape or form. (Six of the seven upcoming festivals fall on Thursday or Friday, which for employers in the education setting in particular means potential timetabling headaches even if they are willing to try to accommodate their Jewish teachers’ requests.) But this consultation is going much further and is far reaching.

It is a major call for evidence from individuals and organisations about how their religion or belief, or that of other people, may have affected their experiences in the workplace and in using the services and facilities they need in everyday life. It is exploratory but also based on evidence that the EHRC has received, including from the Board, which alludes to the fact that the right to express religion is not being adequately considered in public settings.

The Commission wants to gather as much information as possible from members of the public, employers, providers of services, legal advisors and religion or belief organisations.  This will be used to assess how employers and service providers are taking religion or belief into account and the impact this has on individuals.  We are urging as many people as possible to give their feedback at https://equalityhumanrights.com/religion. We know from first- hand experience how serious the challenge to be able to practice religion can be, possibly resulting in some observant Jews being forced out of jobs, in particular, in public sector education.

What is the connection between the guidelines that the EHRC produced recently on the right to practice religion at work and the current consultation?

The EHRC has been planning the current consultation for a while so it’s not directly connected. A few months ago we started working more closely with the EHRC following meetings that  we held with the Department for Education on the  problems facing teachers who asked to arrange for time off work in the public sector. The Board was thus  asked by the EHRC to consult the Jewish public to find out their experiences of having requests met for arranging time off work for religious holidays.

Unfortunately, in the consultation that drew over thirty detailed responses we found  over twenty instances of requests to arrange  work around religious holidays being rejected – leading to cases of people leaving roles, or of feeling that their career prospects were being damaged as a result of making requests. This led to the EHRC responding to our consultation and supporting the concerns that we raised with them.

Indeed, they clarified the right to religious observance  by publishing guidelines which explicitly stated that equality and human rights law requires “employers and education providers to take a balanced, flexible approach towards employees and students who request time off work for religious reasons.”

In two separate letters from the EHRC, one titled ‘Time off work for religious observance’ and the other ‘Timetabling of examinations during religious holidays’ it is clearly stated that “Under the Equality Act 2006, the Commission has powers to challenge non-compliance and enforce the law where we consider that it is necessary and proportionate. We expect employers and education providers to acknowledge, understand and discharge their responsibilities under the law.”

So in summary the evidence that we garnered from our own consultation has led to new guidelines, and now there is this new and broader call for evidence by a major quango on a whole range of issues relating to beliefs and religious practices in public. It is positive as it shows a trend towards applying more pressure on institutions to properly allow us all to express our religious beliefs. This should really help us all.