New Regulation for Religious Symbols in the Workplace

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Despite all the recent attempts to reduce what was perceived by many in the business world as "red tape", the Government now seems set to introduce new laws.

The Prime Minister, David Cameron has promised to introduce new regulations to protect religious beliefs in the workplace.

Referring to Nadia Eweida and Shirley Chaplin's cases that involved a ban on wearing a cross in the work place, Mr Cameron commented "I fully support the right of people to wear religious symbols at work; I think it is absolutely a vital religious freedom. What we will do is, if it turns out that the law has the intention, as has come out in this case, then we will change the law and make clear that people can wear religious emblems at work.' However commentators are unsure as to his understanding of the matter. In the British Airways case the ban was due to its uniform policy on jewellery and in the NHS case it was for health and safety reasons. In neither case was there an issue over religious beliefs.

A problem occurs as in the above mentioned cases, when an employee wishes to be allowed to wear a religious symbol such as a necklace with a crucifix pendant because they feel it is a symbol of their religious beliefs, but the uniform policy does not allow it. If the law is changed to ensure that employees are always allowed to wear religious symbols then what about the potential effects on health and safety? Should religious rights take precedence over health and safety? If an accident does occur as a result of a cross pendant becoming lodged in some machinery then whose fault will it be?

Employment law professional believe that it would be a bad idea to change the law to simply accommodate what is in actual fact a small number of complaints. It's just that these particular cases have received a lot of publicity that the problem might seem larger then it is. It could be like opening up a can of worms if employees were given an express right to wear religious symbols at work. Experience and case law has taught us that what can be deemed a religious belief is quite far ranging. Therefore, it logically follows that if an employee was allowed to wear religious symbols other rights would also follow later in terms of religious practices at work for example. The impact on employers could be huge.

One consequence of the introduction of new regulation to expressly allow religious symbols to be worn in the workplace is that it would also expressly allow the wearing of niqabs. There was a lot of publicity when France decided to ban the wearing of burqas and it's likely that there would be a similar situation here should new regulation allowing them to be worn in all workplaces be allowed, potentially for different reasons. It seems the Government might not have thought about the potentially wide ranging effects such new regulation could have. Would an employer be happy with having little or no argument against a visible tattoo on one of their employees that was a religious symbol for example?