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Religion or belief discrimination

The Equality Act 2010 says you mustn’t be discriminated against because of your religion or belief.

Discrimination which is against the Equality Act is unlawful. If you’ve experienced unlawful discrimination, you may be able to do something about it.

Read this page to find out more about what’s meant by religion and belief.

What’s meant by religion or belief?

If you want to make a discrimination claim you need to find out if you’re someone who mustn’t be discriminated against under the Equality Act 2010.

The Equality Act says it’s only unlawful discrimination if you’re treated unfairly because of certain reasons. These reasons are called protected characteristics. Religion and belief are protected characteristics under the Equality Act. They cover people with a range of faiths and beliefs. Belief means both religious and non religious beliefs.

What’s meant by religion?

You can be discriminated against because you belong to an organised religion, for example:

  • Islam
  • Christianity
  • Judaism
  • Sikhism
  • Buddhism
  • Hinduism.

Religion also means smaller religions or sects like Rastafarianism, Scientology or Paganism.

You can also be discriminated against because you belong to a specific denomination or sect within a religion - for example:

  • Protestants, Methodists or Jehovah’s Witnesses within Christianity
  • Sunnis or Shi'as within Islam
  • Orthodox or Reform Judaism.

Example

You’re a Methodist. You would be protected against discrimination both because you’re a Christian and because you’re a Methodist. You would also be protected against discrimination because, for example, you’re not a Baptist or Jewish.

If necessary, it’s the courts who decide if something is a religion. They will look at whether something has a clear structure and belief system to decide if it’s a religion under the law.

Religious beliefs

The Equality Act protects you against discrimination because of your religious beliefs.

Religious belief means the belief in a religion’s central articles of faith, for example, within Christianity that Jesus is the Son of God. It also means beliefs which exist within a religion, but which are not shared by everybody within that religion.

Here are examples of religious beliefs:

  • the belief of some Christians that you should wear a cross as a symbol of your faith
  • the belief within Islam that a woman should cover her head or her whole body
  • the belief in creationism or intelligent design.

What if you don’t have any religion or religious beliefs?

You’re also protected against discrimination under the Equality Act if you don’t belong to any religion or have any religious beliefs- for example, if you’re an Atheist.

Example

A shop assistant in a Christian book shop refuses to sell you a book because you’re an Atheist. This is unlawful discrimination because of religion or belief.

What’s meant by philosophical belief?

A philosophical belief is a non-religious belief and includes things like humanism, secularism and atheism.

Something can be a philosophical belief if you strongly and genuinely believe in it and it concerns an important aspect of human life and behaviour. The courts have said that the belief in man-made climate change and spiritualism are philosophical beliefs. But a political belief is not a philosophical belief.

The belief must also be acceptable in a democratic society and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others.

Example

You believe in a philosophy of racial superiority for a particular racial group. It’s an important belief to you which is central to how you live your life. Most people, however, would object to this belief and think it’s not something which is acceptable in a democratic society. It’s also not compatible with the fundamental rights of others. It’s therefore not a belief under the Equality Act.

Discrimination because of someone else’s religion or belief

It’s unlawful to discriminate against you because of the religion or belief of someone you’re with or someone you know. This could be a parent, child, partner or friend.

This is called discrimination by association.

Example

You and your friend are both refused entry into a nightclub because your friend is a Rastafarian, although you’re not. This is unlawful discrimination against both you and your friend. You could both take action under the Equality Act.

Discrimination because of who someone thinks you are

It’s unlawful to discriminate against you because someone thinks you belong to a certain religion or hold a particular belief even though you don’t.

This is called discrimination by perception.

Example

A pub landlord refuses to serve you because you're wearing a headscarf and they think you're a Muslim, even though you’re not. This is discrimination by perception because of religion or belief.

Next steps

Other useful information

Equality Advisory Support Service (EASS)

If you have experienced discrimination, you can get help from the EASS discrimination helpline.

Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC)

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