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Discrimination at work - exceptions relating to religion and belief

This advice applies to England

If you’re a job applicant or an employee, employers aren’t generally allowed to discriminate against you - for example, because you’re a woman or because you’re gay. This is unlawful under the Equality Act 2010.

But some employers, like religion or belief organisations and faith schools, are sometimes allowed to discriminate against you when you apply for a job.

Read this page to find out more about when some employers are allowed to discriminate against you under the Equality Act.

Which employers can sometimes discriminate against you?

In some situations, the following employers are allowed to discriminate against you:

  • where the employment is for the purposes of an organised religion, or
  • an organisation whose ethos or core values are based on a religion or belief - for example, a Catholic care home or a Humanist organisation.

Some schools which have a religious character or faith schools are also sometimes allowed to discriminate against you.

When can an employer discriminate against you where the employment is for the purposes of an organised religion?

The Equality Act says an employer can't generally discriminate against you because of your:

  • age
  • disability
  • gender reassignment
  • marriage and civil partnership
  • pregnancy and maternity
  • race
  • religion or belief
  • sex
  • sexual orientation.

The Equality Act calls these things protected characteristics.

But where the employment is for the purposes of an organised religion, an employer can require you:

  • to be of a particular sex
  • not to be a transgender person
  • not to be married or in a civil partnership
  • not to be married to a person of the same sex
  • to be of a particular sexual orientation.

This wouldn't be unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act.

What's meant by employment for the purposes of an organised religion?

The Equality Act does not define what employment for the purposes of an organised religion means. If necessary, it's the employment tribunal which will decide if a job counts as employment for the purposes of an organised religion. Generally speaking, this will be the case where the job is for someone who's involved in the leading of religious observance or promoting or explaining the doctrine of a religion, such as a rabbi or priest, or someone who gives guidance on how to observe the teachings of a religion.

But the employer will have to show that the requirement is being applied:

  • so as to comply with the doctrines or principles of the religion, or
  • to avoid conflicting with the strongly held religious beliefs of a significant number of the people who follow the religion.

For example, a Catholic church could require a new priest to be a heterosexual man who’s not married. But it wouldn’t be lawful for the church to require a cleaner or a gardener to be heterosexual or of a particular sex.

Example

An evangelical church wants to employ a youth worker to teach Bible classes. You’re gay and want to apply for the job. The church says they will only employ you if you’re heterosexual as they say this is necessary to avoid offending the religious beliefs of the church’s followers. This is likely to be lawful under the Equality Act.

Can an employer say you must have a particular religion or belief?

An employer whose ethos is based on religion or belief can require you to have a particular religion or belief to do a job.

If an employer refuses to employ you because you don’t have the required religion or belief they would have to show the following things:

  • the requirement is an occupational requirement - this means it’s genuinely necessary to do this particular job
  • they have a good reason or a legitimate aim for applying the requirement
  • it’s proportionate to apply the requirement in this particular case - this means having the requirement is the best way to achieve the employer’s aim
  • you don’t meet the requirement or the employer has reasonable grounds for believing you don’t meet the requirement.

An employer can only use this exception if their ethos or core values are based on a religion or belief.

For example:

  • a Humanist or Atheist organisation could require their chief executive to be a Humanist or an Atheist
  • a care home managed by a religious charity could require its care staff to have the same religion, if their duties are intended to fulfil the residents’ spiritual as well as physical needs.

Faith schools

The Equality Act also allows some faith schools and higher education institutions which have a religious character to require their head teacher and, in some situations, their teaching staff to be of the same religion.

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

Acas

Acas works with both employers and employees to solve workplace problems.

You can phone the Acas helpline on: 0300 123 1100 and speak to an adviser about your employment problems. The helpline is open 8am-8pm Monday to Friday and 9am-1pm on Saturdays.

You can find useful information about how to sort out work-place problems on the Acas website at

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