Discrimination because of religion or belief
It is against the law to discriminate against you because of your religion or belief. This applies:
when you buy or use goods and services
- at work
- in education
- in housing.
What does religion or belief mean
You are protected by law from discrimination because of your religion or belief if you:
- belong to an organised religion such as Christianity, Judaism or Islam
- have a profound belief which affects your way of life or view of the world. This includes religious and philosophical beliefs, or a lack of belief, such as Atheism
- take part in collective worship
- belong to a smaller religion or sect, such as Scientology or Rastafarianism
- have no religion, for example, if you are an atheist.
The law against discrimination because of religion or belief does not cover purely political beliefs unless they are also philosophical beliefs.
You are protected if someone discriminates against you because they think you are a certain religion, when you are not. For example, it's against the law for someone to discriminate against you for wearing a headscarf because they think you are a Muslim, even if you are not actually Muslim.
Discrimination by association is also against the law. For example, it is against the law to refuse to let you into a restaurant because of the religion of someone who is with you.
What is discrimination
It is discrimination to treat you unfairly compared to someone else, because of your religion or belief. This is called direct discrimination and is illegal. Examples include:
- refusing you a bank loan because you're Jewish
- refusing to allow you into a restaurant because you're Muslim
- dismissing you from work because you're Rastafarian.
You may be able to make a complaint if you have suffered direct discrimination because of your religion or belief.
For more information about direct discrimination, see Direct discrimination.
It is also illegal for someone to have a rule, policy or practice which someone of a particular religion or belief is less likely to be able to meet than other people and this places them at a disadvantage. This is called indirect discrimination.
Examples of indirect discrimination might include:
- refusing to allow you into a restaurant if you're wearing a hijab or turban
- requiring all your employees to dress in a particular way if this means they can’t wear an item of clothing they regard as part of their faith.
If you have suffered indirect discrimination because of your religion or belief, you may be able to make a complaint about it. However, if the person or organisation you are complaining about can show there are genuine reasons for the rule, policy or practice and that it has nothing to do with your religion or belief, this won't count as discrimination.
For example, it might not be discrimination if your employers need you to dress in a particular way for health and safety reasons – such as a firefighter needing to wear a helmet in dangerous situations, even if it means removing a turban.
For more information about indirect discrimination, see Indirect discrimination.
Discrimination can take the form of victimisation. This is where you're treated worse than someone else because you've complained or taken legal action about religious discrimination. It is also victimisation if you're treated unfairly because you've supported someone else taking action, for example, if you act as a witness in someone else's discrimination case.
For more information about victimisation, see Victimisation.
It's a criminal offence to attack you because of your religion or belief, or because of your lack of religion. This includes both physical and verbal abuse.
Someone is also committing a criminal offence if they stir up hatred of a particular religious group. For example, if they publish or distribute racist information or information designed to stir up religious hatred.
If one of these criminal offences is committed against you or your family, you should report it to the police.
If you don’t want to go to the police, check what support you can get if you’ve experienced a hate crime or incident.
For more information about Hate crime see Hate crime.
You are protected from religious discrimination in your workplace. This means you are protected:
- whatever your religion or belief
- whatever your employer's religion or belief
- whether you are already working for your employer
- whether you are applying for a job.
Discrimination at work because of your religion or belief could include:
- dismissing you because of your religion
- advertising for job applicants of one religion only
- requiring you to dress in a certain way, for example, requiring all women to wear a short skirt. This would not be acceptable for women of several different religions
- requiring you not to wear sacred items. For example, a Sikh man might be required to remove their kara (symbolic bracelet). However, if the employer can justify this on health and safety grounds, this wouldn't count as discrimination
- making you work at times that you cannot work because of your religion
- bullying at work because of your religion. This is also known as harassment
Before you take any action, you should check if your problem at work is discrimination.
If you experience discrimination at work because of your religion or belief, you may be able to make a complaint. This includes raising a grievance with your employer or making a claim to an employment tribunal. However, in some circumstances, it might be possible for your employer to show that there were genuine business, or health and safety reasons for the way you have been treated which have nothing to do with your religion or belief. If this is the case, it won't count as discrimination.
I'm Jewish and need to take Friday afternoons off work in winter to get home before dark and prepare for the Sabbath. At the moment, my boss is happy to let me do this and make up the time during the rest of the week. However, he is thinking of introducing a new shift pattern, which means I will not be able to do this any more. Can he do this?
It is against the law to discriminate against a worker because of their religion or belief. So, if your employer is introducing a new shift pattern which will be difficult for you because of your religion, it may be that you are the victim of discrimination because of religion. Your employer would have to justify why it is essential for you to work on Friday afternoons. He must be able to show that he has tried to meet your needs but that for business reasons you still need to work on Friday afternoons. Otherwise, his behaviour towards you may count as discrimination because of your religion.
Victimisation at work because of your religion or belief
Victimisation happens when you are treated worse than someone else at work because you've complained, or taken legal action, about religious discrimination. It is also victimisation if you are treated unfairly because you've supported someone else taking action, for example, if you act as a witness in someone else's discrimination case.
Examples of victimisation at work could include:
- being labelled a trouble-maker
- being denied promotion or training opportunities
- being ignored by your work colleagues
- being given a poor reference.
People at work are always making fun of one of my colleagues who is a Jehovah's Witness and always reading the Bible in her coffee breaks. I tried to tell them to stop and now they are saying spiteful things about me too. My life at work has become a misery. Is there anything I can do?
If the reason you are being victimised is because you complained about religious discrimination, this is against the law. You should get expert advice about how to tackle the problem.
Bullying at work because of your religion or belief
It is against the law for someone to bully you at work because of your religion or belief. This is known as harassment. The person bullying you may be your employer or it may be a colleague. Someone is bullying you if you find their behaviour towards you offensive, frightening, degrading, humiliating or in any way distressing. It may be intentional or unintentional.
It is also against the law for someone to bully you at work because of your religion or belief, even if they are mistaken about what it is. For example, if you are attacked at your workplace by someone who has assumed, wrongly, that you are a Muslim because of your appearance. You will not have to say what your religion actually is in order to do something about this.
If you are being treated unfairly or bullied at work because of your religion or belief, take action as quickly as possible. You could try:
- telling the person to stop
- telling your manager or someone else higher up in the organisation
- talking to your personnel department or trade union.
If none of these things work, you may wish to raise a grievance and think about making a claim to an employment tribunal.
There are strict time-limits and procedures for making a claim to an employment tribunal. If you think you may need to do this, you should get advice, for example, from a Citizens Advice office. To search for your nearest Citizens Advice, including those that can give advice by email, click on nearest Citizens Advice.
For more information about what you can do about discrimination because of your religion at work, including making a claim to an employment tribunal, see What can I do if my employer treats me unfairly because of religion or belief? In Employment fact sheets.
For more information about taking out a grievance at work, see Sorting out problems at work.
It's against the law to refuse to provide training opportunities to you because of your religion or belief, or to provide them in a way which puts you at a disadvantage to other people because of your religion or belief. This includes:
- any training designed to prepare you for employment
- career guidance
- training facilities
- practical work experience provided by an employer to someone who doesn't work for them
- assessing someone for a professional or trade qualification.
It's against the law for anyone providing goods, facilities or services directly to the public to discriminate because of religion or belief.
Examples of organisations which provide goods, facilities or services include:
- pubs, restaurants and hotels
- cinemas and theatres
- hospitals and clinics
- estate agents, private landlords and local authority housing departments
- banks, building societies, insurance companies and finance companies
- railway stations, bus stations and airports
- churches and other places of worship
- charities and voluntary organisations
- government departments, local authorities, courts and tribunals, police officers and prisons
- welfare services such as housing advice, day-care or community care.
For example, it's against the law for a pub or restaurant to refuse to serve you, or for a hotel to refuse to give you a room because of your religion or belief, or what they think your religion or belief is.
For more examples of organisations which provide goods, facilities and services, see the Equality and Human Rights Commission website at: www.equalityhumanrights.com.
Someone providing goods, facilities or services must not:
- refuse to provide you with them because of your religion or belief
- discriminate in the way any of these things are provided because of your religion or belief.
It is illegal to discriminate regardless of how the goods and services are provided or whether you have to pay for them or not.
For example, it’s illegal for someone to discriminate against you when you’re buying something in a shop or over the internet, when you’re making a telephone enquiry or when someone gives you written information.
With a few limited exceptions, it's illegal to publish an advert for goods, facilities or services which discriminates because of religion or belief, or which advertises discriminatory services.
If an advertisement like this is published, the Equality and Human Rights Commission can take court action against the publisher, if the case is referred to them by an advice agency.
It is not illegal for a charity to provide services and benefits only to people of a certain religion or belief.
This means that they can exclude people of other religions or beliefs. The aims of the charity must be set out in their constitution or rules.
For example, a charity may be set up to provide day-care services for members of the Jewish community. This isn't illegal as long as this is what the charity's constitution says they are there for.
Certain religious organisations may be allowed to discriminate against people of different religions. This includes faith schools. The organisation must not be commercial, that is, it must be non-profit-making. The discrimination must be necessary:
- for meeting the organisation's religious aims, or
- to avoid offending those who share its religious aims.
I run a church youth club. Am I allowed to restrict membership of the club to practising Christians or is this discrimination?
As long as your club isn’t a commercial business and if your aims are to further the Christian belief amongst young people, you are allowed to refuse membership to young people who are not Christians.
Religious organisations are allowed to discriminate by stopping people of other religions or of no religion:
- from becoming members
- from taking part in the organisation’s activities
- from using the goods and services they offer
- from using their premises.
In certain circumstances, some organisations are allowed to provide welfare services only to people of a particular religion or belief. This includes things like:
- hostel accommodation
- housing advice services
- day care services.
Organisations are allowed to do this where it can be shown that it leads to a greater take-up of the service, or improves service delivery.
The quickest way to sort out your problem is to put your concerns in writing to the company or organisation involved. Find out if there is a complaints department and send your letter or email there. If there's no complaints department, find out the name of a manager or other senior person responsible for the service which discriminated against you and write to them. Your letter or email should include:
- all the facts, including the date or dates when the discrimination took place
- why you believe discrimination took place
- if there were any witnesses, giving their details
- what you would like the company or organisation to do about the problem
- what you are going to do if the problem isn't sorted out within a certain time-limit.
If this doesn't work, you could try:
- following the company or organisation's formal complaints procedure, if they have one. Most large companies and all public bodies such as local authorities, government departments and health authorities will have formal complaints procedures
- complaining to the organisation's trade association, if they belong to one. The association may be able to put pressure on them to sort out your problem, or they may offer a conciliation or arbitration service which could help you reach an acceptable solution.
- complaining to the relevant Ombudsman. All public bodies such as local authorities, government departments, health authorities and social landlords have an Ombudsman, as well as financial institutions such as banks and building societies
- taking a case to the county court (sheriff court in Scotland). You must start a case within six months of when the discrimination happened. If you're successful, you might get compensation.
For more information about Ombudsmen, see How to use an Ombudsman.
Any course of action may be complicated and may make your life more uncomfortable in the short-term. There may also be costs involved, particularly if you use a solicitor to represent you. If you are thinking about taking legal action, you should consult an experienced adviser, for example, at a Citizens Advice Bureau. To search for your nearest Citizens Advice office, including those that can give advice by email, click on nearest Citizens Advice.
It's against the law for a school or college to discriminate because of religion or belief when it decides on who should be accepted as a pupil or student. This applies to both state and independent schools and colleges. However, it doesn't apply to faith schools. Once you have been accepted as a pupil or student at the school or college, it's against the law for them to discriminate against you because of your religion or belief. For example, you can't refuse to let someone be a prefect, give them detention or extra homework just because of their religion or belief.
Rules about school uniform must not discriminate against you because of your religion. For example, if you're a young Sikh man, you must be allowed to wear a turban at school as this is part of your faith.
However, this doesn't mean that a school has to allow all items of religious dress. Schools can have a uniform policy which prevents pupils wearing certain things. They might, for example, do this for health and safety reasons.
The law about religious discrimination does not apply to what is taught in schools (the curriculum). For example:
- a school is allowed to teach evolution theories even if these theories go against the religious views of some parents
- it isn't against the law for religious education lessons in schools to teach mainly about Christianity. However, teachers must also take into account the other main religions. This doesn't apply to faith schools.
My family is Hindu. I am upset because my daughter has to go to religious education classes at school where Hinduism is hardly mentioned. This seems to be discrimination against Hindus as Christianity is mentioned a lot.
The classes have to reflect the fact that religious tradition in this country is mainly Christian. However, they also have to take into account the other main religions and individual classes can be about other religions. Try talking to your child's teacher about the problems you are experiencing. But if you can't manage to sort out the problem, there is probably no legal action you can take.
Collective worship (school assemblies)
In a community or foundation school, acts of collective worship, such as assemblies, must be of a general Christian nature. However, they must not reflect any one particular type of Christianity, for example, Catholicism.
In a faith school, which is a voluntary or foundation school, collective worship must reflect the faith of the school.
There are certain areas of the law about discrimination because of religion and belief which don't apply to faith schools or colleges.
For example, faith schools and colleges have the right to discriminate because of religion when they decide who to accept as a pupil or student. They can choose to give priority to pupils who share their own faith over other pupils. However, it's against the law for them to leave places unfilled if there aren't enough pupils of their own faith to fill them.
Once you have been accepted as a pupil or student at the school or college, it's against the law for them to discriminate against you because of your religion or belief. For example, a Catholic school is not allowed to exclude a pupil who started off as a Catholic and then converts to a different faith.
However, faith schools and colleges are allowed to restrict certain services and benefits that they offer to pupils sharing the faith of the school or college, or can offer them in a different way. For example, faith schools are allowed to:
- organise trips for pupils who follow the faith of the school to their local church or religious shrine. They don't have to organise similar visits for children of other faiths within the school
- say that only pupils who share their faith can read aloud certain religious texts during assembly
- mark or celebrate their own religious events or traditions without having to do the same for children of other faiths within the school.
What can you do about discrimination because of religion or belief in education
You can make a complaint about discrimination by a school, college or university in your local county court (sheriff court in Scotland).If your complaint is about a school, you should first try to resolve your complaint by talking to the school's headteacher. If you are still unhappy, you can then take your complaint to the school's governing body.
For more information about how to complain about a school, see Sorting out school problems.
If your complaint is about a college or university, you should first use the institution's own complaints procedure. If you are complaining about a further education college funded by the Skills funding Agency you could also complain to the Agency. Information about how to do this is available on the Agency's website at: www.gov.uk/government/organisations/skills-funding-agency.
If your complaint is about a university in England or Wales, you could take your complaint to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (the OIA).The OIA can be contacted at:
38-50 King's Road
Tel: 0118 959 9813
If you have a complaint about a university in Scotland, you should complain to the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman at: www.spso.org.uk.
For more information about how to use an ombudsman in Scotland and when to use one, see How to use an ombudsman or commissioner in Scotland.
If you want to make a complaint about discrimination by a school, college or university, you should get advice from an experienced adviser, for example, at a Citizens Advice Bureau. To search for your nearest CAB, including those that can give advice by e-mail, click on nearest CAB.
If you think you’re being discriminated against by your landlord or someone else involved in your housing, you should check if your housing problem is discrimination.
For information about discrimination in housing, see Discrimination in housing.
As well as discrimination because of your religion, you could be treated unfairly for other reasons.
For example, you're a Turkish Muslim woman and you're sacked because you're pregnant. You may have a claim for race and pregnancy discrimination as well as religious discrimination. If you think you've been treated unfairly for more than one reason, make sure you mention all the reasons if you make a complaint.
For more information about discrimination, see our discrimination pages.
The Equality Advisory Support Service (EASS)
If you have experienced discrimination, you can get help from the EASS discrimination helpline.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC)
You can find useful information about discrimination on the EHRC website at www.equalityhumanrights.com.
A law centre can offer free legal advice if you want to take a case for religious discrimination. If a solicitor from a law centre represents you, you may be entitled to legal aid.. In England and Wales, details of the nearest law centre are available from the Law Centres Network, and in Scotland from the Scottish Association of Law Centres.
England and Wales
Free Representation Unit (England)
The Free Representation Unit (FRU) can provide representation for people on a low income and living in the London area. However, the FRU is a voluntary organisation and representation in cases cannot be guaranteed. If you want help from the FRU, you must be referred in writing by an advice agency once the date of a hearing has been set. The agency must be an FRU subscriber. Some Citizens Advice local offices in the London area subscriber to the FRU. To search for your nearest Citizens Advice, including those that can give advice by email, click on nearest Citizens Advice.
The FRU can be contacted at:
289 – 293 High Holborn