Religious employees feel under pressure to keep their beliefs hidden at work, with Christians regarded as bigots and Jews and Muslims finding it awkward to take time off for religious holidays, according to a study by the equality watchdog.
Meanwhile, atheists and humanists who responded to the survey by the Equality and Human Rights Commission said they had experienced unwanted conversion attempts and felt excluded from company events held in religious buildings. "Non-religious staff were resentful when they believed that religious colleagues received more favourable treatment in relation to time off and time away from work," the report said.
Other examples cited by people who responded include a Catholic who was unable to wear a crucifix or rosary while others had nose rings and piercings and a law firm manager who faced objections to organising a Christmas party as it promoted religion. "Some evangelical Christians [who] felt that Christian beliefs had lost their place in society and that this made it more difficult for them to express these beliefs in the workplace and in service delivery," the report read.
And children of Christian parents were said to have been "ridiculed" for their beliefs, while humanist parents claimed their youngsters had also been mocked - including one told they did not deserve Christmas presents as they did not believe in God.
The research, based on 2,483 responses from individuals and organisations, comes as the watchdog prepares a report into laws protecting religious freedoms and looks to issue guidelines for employers and the public. Many of those responding to the survey said they were unsure of how to deal with "harassment, unwelcome proselytising and discrimination... especially the case when discriminatory views were expressed about women and LGBT staff."
Mark Hammond, chief executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said: "How the law deals with religion and other beliefs in work, in providing services and in public debate has become a matter of considerable controversy.
"What we found from the thousands of responses we received was a complex picture of different opinions and experiences. However, what came out strongly was the widespread confusion about the law, leading to some resentment and tensions between groups and anxiety for employers who fear falling foul of what they see as complicated equality and human rights legislation.
"We also found examples of organisations which had taken a constructive approach to dealing with issues of religion or belief, with employees providing positive experiences of diverse and inclusive workplaces."
Some Christian businesses reported being "in turmoil" over whether actions might breach the Equality Act, aimed at preventing discrimination in the workplace. Hammond added: "We'll use this evidence as we examine how effective the law is in this area and develop guidance which we hope will help everyone address some of the issues which have come out of the consultation."
But Stephen Evans, campaigns manager for the National Secular Society, cautioned against a change in the law. He said: "Christians fearing that Christianity has lost its status is not a valid reason for revisiting our equality laws. We've got a good equality framework in the UK which means people's religion and beliefs are being accommodated so far as is reasonable, and competing demands are being balanced. Britain is a better, fairer, place for it.
"However, what emerges from the report is a clear sense that there are some evangelical Christians who really do feel they have a right to express and manifest discriminatory beliefs in the workplace. Religious beliefs are a personal, private matter, and discrimination, whether derived from religious beliefs or not, has no place at work.
NatCen Social Research carried out the research of 2,483 people and organisations between August and October 2014 on behalf of the Commission. The majority of respondents were Christian (1,030) followed by atheists (188). Other faiths were included in smaller numbers.
DISCRIMINATION IN THE WORKPLACE
“The wearing or ‘showing of’ a crucifix, rosary or any other Catholic jewellery was forbidden, yet nose rings, tongue piercings and tattoos were ok.” Catholic participant
“The teacher replied that people who are 'religious nutters' are those who believe that God created the universe. [My daughter] told him that as a Christian she believes that God created the universe to which the teacher ridiculed her in front of the class.” Christian participant
“As an unmarried woman, I was told I was not allowed to talk to the children about my 'condition [pregnancy]', and that I would struggle to gain a promotion in any local school. I was also advised to wear a pretend wedding ring.” Humanist teacher
“My employer, a firm of accountants, informed me after I had been working for several months, that I would not get promotion to Partner unless I attended office prayers and practised as an evangelical Christian.”
“When I organised a Christmas party a couple of employees objected on the basis that the use of the word Christmas would promote a religious belief. We had to agree upon 'an End of Year Party/Christmas Party according to your beliefs'. I was offended but the boundaries have become unclear.” Manager in a Law Firm
“I appreciate minority groups may in the past feel that they were dealt with in an intolerant manner. For that I am truly sorry. However, you cannot allow the pendulum to shift so far in the opposite direction so to now limit the employment opportunities for those actively practising a religion… It seems unfair, if not hypocritical. A balance of mutual respect must be found.” Middle Manager, Public Health Sector
“My son, aged eight, was called over by a Dinner Lady and asked if he believed in God. When he said no she told him he didn't deserve any Xmas presents. I made a written complaint to the Head Teacher, but was told the dinner lady had said her comments were a joke and she was not able to discuss the incident further.” Humanist
“[My partner, who was in hospital] explained she didn't want a priest … and was told that no Humanist Chaplain was available; and therefore no help was available for the non-religious.” Atheist
“As a Christian I have in the past been able to use my beliefs as a frame of reference when dealing with issues of un-forgiveness and leadership. I am now conscious of making any reference to my beliefs for fear of the reprisals to my business, such as the loss of a contract. I feel the political climate has effectively silenced the powerful difference I have been able to bring in the past.” Group Facilitator