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FAQ’s: How far does your school have to go to accommodate the religious beliefs of your staff?

Religion and belief is a protected characteristic in the Equality Act 2010. This means that you cannot treat a member of staff (or job applicant) less favourably because of their religion or beliefs. In addition, you cannot put in place a requirement that disadvantages an individual because of their religion or beliefs, unless it is a ‘proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim’.

However, this does not mean that you cannot make decisions that are essential for the smooth running of your school. Instead you need to think about the implications of those decisions and, if necessary, put in place measures to overcome or reduce the negative impact that they might have.

1)  Do we have to allow an employee to take time off for religious festivals?

Most employers require their staff to use annual leave for such occasions and this is an acceptable practice. The difficulty for schools is that most employees can only take holiday when the school is closed to pupils. This can cause difficulties for members of staff who wish to attend religious festivals occurring during term time. This is likely to affect those who have non-Christian beliefs as the Christian festivals of Easter and Christmas fall within school holidays.

A policy of not taking leave during term time may therefore potentially disadvantage individuals who share non-Christian beliefs. This can amount to indirect discrimination.

To successfully defend such charges, schools must be able to demonstrate that the requirement to take holidays at fixed points in the academic year is justified and that there is no less onerous way of delivering the same level of service by another (non-discriminatory) means. It may be relatively straightforward to establish this with regard to teaching staff and those who have direct contact with the children. However, other support staff may be able to easily undertake their duties at other times.

Advice

  • Make sure that your policy sets out how requests will be allocated. It is always possible that a number of employees will request leave at the same time, and you will not be able to agree to all requests. Make it clear how you will decide who gets the leave in this situation.
  • It can be helpful to include discretion to enable you to consider each request on its own merits. If you include this you should make sure that you consider requests consistently, by for example, considering the impact granting leave will have on the school/provision of education. This will help you to reach consistent decisions.
  • The policy should set out whether leave taken in these circumstances will be paid or unpaid. There is no need for you to pay for leave in excess of the employee’s contractual entitlements. Be consistent and make sure that all employees who take additional leave for whatever reason are treated equally.

2)  A teacher has asked to take a 10 minute prayer break during lesson times. Do we have to accommodate it?

There is no express obligation on employers to provide time and designate or create specific facilities for religious belief or observance in the workplace. However, it is sensible to consider whether you can accommodate the request as this will help you to justify your decision if you decide to refuse it. For example, does the teacher work with a support teacher who is able to take the class for 10 minutes? Can the teacher pray during a scheduled break? Further discussion would need to take place to help you reach a fair decision.

A recent case involving a school provides some helpful advice. Mr Mayuuf was a maths teacher employed at a Catholic school. He believed in the Maliki School of Islam which required him to attend prayers at a mosque every Friday. The school accommodated this for a while but following a change in timetable, his request was turned down. He argued that he had suffered religious discrimination, but the school was able to justify its decision. This was because they were trying to address declining standards in GCSE maths and year 11 maths classes were scheduled to take place at the same time so that pupils could be moved up or down between sets according to ability. The tribunal accepted that it would have been practically impossible to rewrite the timetable to free up this period and providing a supply teacher would have affected the continuity of education and would have been too costly.

Advice

  • If an employee requests a prayer break, start by considering how this could be achieved without disrupting the school. All employees are entitled to a break of at least 20 minutes when they have worked for six hours. Could the timing of this break be organised to accommodate the employee?
  • If it is not possible to accommodate the request and you have a good reason for doing so, you can refuse it.
  • Employers are not required to enter into significant expenditure or make alterations to their premises to meet religious needs. However, In terms of providing facilities, consider the wider needs of the school such as whether pupils may also wish to access these as this would be relevant to your decision.

3)  Can a teacher refuse to carry out some of their duties, or refuse to teach certain subjects because of their religious beliefs?

The right to hold a religious belief is not an absolute right that “trumps” all other protected rights. There is scope for conflict between the protected characteristics of religion and belief and sexual orientation, since some religious groups have strong views on homosexuality. Plus, some religions impose dietary restrictions and/or impose restrictions on what each sex can do which can impact on their ability to perform their duties. This can lead to requests to be allowed to “opt out” of work that conflicts with their beliefs.

Schools are under a duty to comply with the Equality Act. Although the content of the curriculum is expressly excluded from this, the way in which a school provides education and delivers the curriculum is explicitly included. Schools are entitled to expose pupils to thoughts and ideas of all kinds, however challenging or controversial, without fear of legal challenge (from pupils) based on a protected characteristic.

Advice

In deciding whether or not to accept an employee’s request to be excused from certain duties on religious grounds, you should consider whether the duty itself clashes with the particular belief of the individual (and you may need to seek guidance on this) and then consider whether granting the request:

  • Will cause disruption to your school or adversely impact on your ability to teach subjects required under the curriculum
  • Has any health and safety implications
  • Will impact on the workload of other employees
  • Will impact on the school ethos and values or on any aspects of the curriculum.

It is also sensible to consider agreeing a trial period to see if the arrangement works without difficulty. Make it clear that you may require the teacher to revert back to their normal duties if the trial is unsuccessful.

If you cannot accommodate the request, you should explain the reasons for this to the employee.

4)  Do employees have the right to wear religious clothes or symbols at work?

If your school has a policy on dress (or provides a uniform for some of its staff), you should try and be flexible and reasonable concerning requests to wear religious clothing and items of jewellery. That said, if the item potentially causes a health and safety risk or impedes the ability of the individual to communicate, you can refuse.

There are a number of cases which provide useful guidance. One involved a school pupil who brought proceedings against the school when it refused to allow her to wear a religious bangle because it was contrary to its uniform policy. The tribunal accepted that wearing the bangle was of exceptional importance to the pupil and was an expression of her race and culture. It was unobtrusive and caused no health or safety risk and she should have been allowed to wear it.

An instruction for a bilingual support worker to remove her veil (which covered everything apart from the worker’s eyes) was also found to be justified because it impeded her ability to effectively communicate and teach.

Similarly, a nursery did not discriminate against a job applicant when it made clear at interview that its uniform policy meant that any garment worn should not present a tripping hazard. This policy did not indirectly discriminate against Muslim women who wore jilbabs (a garment which covers the body from neck to ankle). The nursery allowed women to wear ankle-length jilbabs, so long as they did not present a tripping hazard.

Advice

Consider if granting a request to display an item of jewellery or wear a form of dress will impact upon the employee’s ability to do their job safely or adversely affect the education of pupils. If it does, then refusing the request is likely to be justified.

5)  What is the best advice for schools?

Employees do not have an absolute right to practice their religion in the workplace or to take time off for religious adherence. Employers are required to balance their need to properly manage their schools alongside the beliefs of certain members of their staff. If particular beliefs can be accommodated, it is sensible to do so. All that is really required is for your school to act reasonably and treat requests appropriately. However, we recommend that you take legal advice as the justification of your decision is a complex balance of factors.

It is also helpful to communicate with employees and involve them in the decision making process as much as possible – they may even be able to suggest a compromise for a solution!

6)  Where can we find further information?

The government has published a guide to the Equality Act 2010 for schools providing departmental advice for school leaders, school staff, governing bodies and local authorities. 

Key Contact

Jenny Arrowsmith