“Druids, vegans and green activists should be given special treatment at work, according to “lunatic” advice from the Equalities Watchdog”. Guess the newspaper? Under the blaring headline “What an insult to Christians!”, the Daily Mail swaggered back into the workplace arena earlier this week with a searing and almost wholly misleading indictment of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission’s guidance on religion and belief in the workplace.
Sorry, but this is not news. The underlying law on discrimination on grounds of religion and belief has been in force since 2003 and the EHRC’s guidance was issued on 14 February, some 7 weeks ago (see our 15 February post discussing the guidance). It has gone almost wholly unremarked upon elsewhere, not least because it makes no changes at all to the relevant law concerning an employer’s rights and obligations in this area. Consequently it is hard (impossible, actually) to attach much credence to the apocalyptic forecasts of the various Tory MPs quoted in the piece, in particular Philip Davies (“the EHRC is packed full of idiots who have no idea about the real world or running a business”) and Dominic Raab (“this is a recipe for every crank and crazy to take their boss for a ride”). In similar vein the Mail’s Comment column refers to vegans being given the “right” to refuse to sit on leather chairs, a piece of arrant nonsense which appears nowhere in the guidance nor can even be reasonably extrapolated from it. “Pagans and druids given time off work to attend sacred rituals…ecologists excused duties leading to an increase in CO2 emissions” – pure rabble-rousing hyperbole, a piece of reporting ill-considered even by the Mail’s own vaulting standards in this area.
The paper thinks that the EHRC guidance should have focussed on the Eweida judgment in which a single Christian employee was granted the right to wear a small crucifix at work (a point her employer had long since conceded) and another was not (see our 17 January post). The suggestion that some other religions and beliefs, “even” atheism, should be granted similar (and equally caveated) rights is greeted by the Mail as a deliberate insult to Christians on the express basis that those other beliefs are less worthy of respect than Christianity. You can just imagine the Little Englander screams if the piece had been written referring to Islam instead. The short point is that once a religion or similar belief is established as genuine then it has equal rights before the law. That is not the responsibility of the EHRC on any view.
However, the most misleading (as opposed to merely profoundly irritating) part of the report is the implicit suggestion that all Mr Raab’s “cranks and crazies” have the right to be accommodated, whether it is not to touch meat or not to work on Sundays (or Friday afternoons or on “pagan ritual days”). This simply untrue. The employee can request whatever he wants – nothing new there – and if the employer can reasonably accommodate it, then it should. Nothing new there either, especially for a good employer. However, if it cannot find a reasonable way to make what the employee wants work, then it has no obligation to do so. If the anti-meat beliefs of the Mail’s new hate-figure, the vegetarian kitchen-hand, are incompatible with his job, then just as with the registrar who won’t carry out civil partnership ceremonies, the employer can soon relieve him of the need to reconcile the two.
So do not be misled by the Mail’s histrionics – the EHRC guidance is a worthy attempt to address a difficult and highly-charged issue. While it can obviously never be all things to all men, its emphasis on balance and the ultimate priority of the needs of the business (Mr Davies must have missed that bit) makes it definitely worth a read.