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Religious Discrimination

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Religion has arguably gathered more column inches, book sales and heated debates than any other subject grazing the planet and the need to adhere to a seemingly endless list of beliefs inevitably lands on employers’ laps.

As the legal Ganges tries desperately not to break her banks, companies must now juggle the wishes of Christians, Muslims, Atheists, Naturists, Sikhs, Buddhists, Catholics, Kabbalists, Hindus, Jews, Rastafaris . . . .

But in the past months, several religious cases have been thrust into the public’s eye.

In Manchester, a Sikh man was made to feel ‘a right plonker’ at the hands of Only Fools and Horses in the Metropolitan Police, fellow city employers were left haunted as a police psychic laid claim to ghostly beliefs, and in Wales, supermarket ‘Dark Lords’ Tesco became the arch nemesis of a fully-fledged Jedi Knight.

Throughout all this, employers are left scratching their heads and fearful of circling press vultures labelling them ‘racist’, ‘insensitive’, ‘unbending’, or ‘overly PC’. Maintaining a company’s reputation is paramount as the failing economy leaves them little else to call their own.

In the case of PC Gurmeal Singh, Greater Manchester Police asked if he could remove or modify his turban for riot training exercises. In a scene lifted from Del Boy’s back catalogue of hair-brain schemes, a “crash turban” was almost considered a viable option for the embarrassed officer. An employment tribunal eventually agreed that a little more than £10,000 was enough to soothe his religious discomfort.

“This case was particularly disturbing because it related to allegations of discrimination and victimisation of all Sikh officers’ right to wear their turbans as part of their identity as a Sikh during the course of employment,” said Mr Singh’s solicitor.

Employment Equality Regulations came into force in December 2003, with amendments quickly following. In their early years, the regulations have changed the way employers tackle the views of their workers, while adding the concept of belief to an individual’s legal arsenal.

Belief constitutes any religious or philosophical thought earnestly held. The legislation means that if employees or individuals can prove they live their lives according to specific ideals, their employers must make sure they do nothing to compromise their staffs’ life choices.

Belief was brought international attention after Daniel Jones, founder and handbook writer of the 500,000 strong International Church of Jediism, had his Jedi clothing challenged by Tesco’s staff.

According to Mr Jones’ Jedi rules, followers must wear a hood at all times in public places, but Tesco staff “victimised” the young Knight by asking him to remove his sci-fi inspired garment.

Jabba-the-supermarket chain’s response: “If Jedi walk around our stores with their hoods on, they’ll miss lots of special offers,” may have made light of the situation, but Mr Jones’ case mirrors the dangers now facing UK businesses.

“It was discrimination, I was really upset. I walked past a Muslim lady in a veil….surely the same rules should apply to everyone,” uttered Mr Jones.

The Jedi’s response was not meant for mind tricks or ridicule, religion and belief is too precious a subject to mock, even when dressed as a fictional character. Employers, business owners, and all others must now make sure that individuals feel comfortable enough to demonstrate their beliefs without persecution.

As the nation enters the holiday season, religion will begin its annual influx on the public conscience. Christmas, Diwali, Eid-Ul-Adha and many other events will be celebrated in family homes, shopping tills, and around the water cooler, while employers and business owners tread ever so softly around the festivities’ edges.

To avoid legal penalties, make sure you adhere to discrimination laws ‘religiously’, and always remember: “wise be you when words you must choose,” as the late Yoda might say.

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Written by Andrew Hodges

November 30, 2009 at 10:28 pm

Posted in Comment, LinkedIn

Tagged with , ,

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