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Religious organisations and charities - when discrimination is allowed in the provision of goods or services

This advice applies to Wales

The law which says you mustn't be discriminated against is called the Equality Act 2010. Discrimination which is against the Act is unlawful. But there are some situations where discrimination is allowed. Sometimes religious organisations and charities are allowed to discriminate against you when they provide services.

Read this page to find out more about when religious organisations and charities are allowed to discriminate against you under the Equality Act.

When can religious organisations discriminate against you?

It’s sometimes lawful for a religious organisation to discriminate against you because of your:

  • sexual orientation, or
  • religion or belief.

Sexual orientation and religion and belief are protected characteristics under the Equality Act. People who have these characteristics are generally protected from unlawful discrimination under the Act.

What can they do do?

The Equality Act says a religious organisation can do the following things:

  • exclude you from participation in certain activities or services they offer
  • restrict membership of the organisation
  • restrict the use of its premises.

If the organisation can show it’s necessary because of its religious aims, or to avoid offending people who share its religious aims, it’s not unlawful discrimination.

For example, a church could say only members of their religion can attend a church-run toddler group where the parents meet to discuss their faith. If you're not able to attend the toddler group because you're not a member of that religion, you couldn't complain about unlawful discrimination here.

But if the religious organisation is providing a service on behalf of a public authority like a local council, they're not allowed to discriminate against you because of your sexual orientation or religion or belief.

Example

You want to go to a parent and toddler group which is run by a local church on behalf of the local authority. But you’ve been told that you can’t go because of your sexual orientation. This is unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act. The exception about religious organisations doesn’t apply here because the church is providing a service on behalf of a public authority.

Separate or single-sex services provided by religious organisations

Some services which are provided in relation to an organised religion can be restricted to one sex only. Single-sex or separate services can be provided if it’s necessary to:

  • respect the doctrine or principles of the religion, or
  • avoid offending the religious beliefs of a significant number of the people who follow the religion.

It only covers services which take place somewhere that is occupied or used for the purposes of an organised religion, like a church hall or mosque.

For example, a synagogue can have separate seating for men and women at a reception following a religious service, or a church could provide religious classes to boys and girls separately.

Acts of worship don’t count as services under the Equality Act.

Same sex marriage

It’s not unlawful discrimination for an individual or a religious organisation not to carry out, attend or take part in a religious marriage of a same sex couple.

Charities

Charities can sometimes restrict their services or benefits to people with a particular protected characteristic - for example, women or disabled people. But they can only do this if it’s included in their charitable instrument. This is a document which all charities must have and which sets out the charity’s purposes and how the charity will operate.

The charity would also have to show one of these things:

  • that they have a good enough reason for discriminating against you, or
  • that it’s necessary to restrict their services to a particular group because of the disadvantage suffered by that group.

However, charities can never restrict their services based on colour. This would always be unlawful race discrimination even if it's included in their charitable instrument.

Example

A charity working with Gypsies and Travellers provides out of school learning activities to Gypsy and Traveller children. This is to improve the educational achievement of this group of children as they often suffer a disadvantage in this area. This wouldn't be unlawful discrimination provided this is allowed for in the charity's charitable instrument.

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)

You can find useful information about discrimination on the EHRC website at

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