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Religion or belief: key legislation

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An outline of issues of equality law specific to religion or belief

In England, Scotland and Wales, the Equality Act 2010 brought together and harmonised equality legislation. Our Equality Act 2010 law page contains an overview of the Act and should be read in conjunction with the information here.

Specific issues of the law covering religion or belief are also detailed below.

Legislation in Northern Ireland is different, and is covered in the section below. This should be read in conjunction with the following briefing:

England, Scotland and Wales

The Equality Act 2010 provides protection against discrimination, harassment and victimisation on the grounds of religion or belief.

In the provision of goods, facilities and services, the Act prohibits discrimination and victimisation but not harassment because of religion or belief. However, many of the actions that may be considered as acts of harassment may also be considered acts of direct discrimination, for which there is protection.

Definitions

The definitions of religion and belief are:

  • religion - any religion or reference to religion, including a reference to a lack of religion
  • belief - any religious or philosophical belief or reference to belief, including a reference to a lack of belief

Religion or belief should be taken to mean the full diversity of religious and belief affiliations within the UK, including non-religious and philosophical beliefs such as atheism, agnosticism and humanism.

For further information on what constitutes a religion or belief and the latest developments on case law in this area, visit our religion or belief case law page.

Previous legislation

Much of the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003 and the Equality Act 2006 have been revoked as parts of the Equality Act 2010 commenced in October 2010.

However, they can still be relied on where the discriminatory act complained of (such as a case of religion or belief discrimination) occurred wholly before 1 October 2010.

The Equality Act 2010 also introduced a public sector equality duty that covers religion or belief. There are separate specific duties for England, Scotland and Wales.

Religion or belief specific law

The Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 amended the Public Order Act 1986 and made it an offence to stir up hatred and protects people from harm for their religion or belief or lack of religion or belief.

Higher education institutions will need to be mindful of this in relation to their role in promoting academic freedom, as reflected in the Education Reform Act 1988, and freedom of speech, as obliged by the Education Act (No.2) 1986.

Northern Ireland

The Northern Ireland Act 1998 established the devolved Northern Ireland Assembly. Anti-discrimination legislation is devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly.

The legislation applies to both staff and students, before, during and after the relationship with the higher education institution. The legislation covers employment, education, and the provision of goods, facilities, services and premises.

Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 places Northern Irish public authorities, including higher education institutions, under a duty to have due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity between people of different religious belief and political opinion. Public authorities are also required to have regard to the desirability of promoting good relations between people of different religious belief and political opinion. Northern Irish higher education institutions have to meet specific duties in relation to this general duty.

Further information

Section 76 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 makes it unlawful for a public authority, including higher education institutions, to discriminate, or to aid or incite another person to discriminate, against a person or class of person on the grounds of religious belief or political opinion.

The Fair Employment and Treatment (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 makes it unlawful to discriminate against someone on the grounds of religious belief or political opinion. This includes a person's supposed religious belief or political opinion and the absence of any, or any particular, religious belief or political opinion.