Equalities and religious difference

Niqab_EnglandLegal protection against discrimination on grounds of religion or belief has a much shorter history in the UK than comparable laws relating to race, disability and gender. Up until the turn of the millennium religious groups – notably Sikhs and Jews – had to seek protections under race relations legislation. Since then, a range of new laws have been introduced but, as Linda Woodhead has observed, research, reflection and legislation in relation to the mandates for religion or belief are ‘nowhere near as well developed’ as for the other protected characteristics.[1]

In this series, Public Spirit looks at how recent Acts relating to religion and belief have been implemented and explores some of the most urgent debates about finding the right balance between religious freedom and equality.

The first two articles, by Maleiha Malik (King’s College, University of London) and Prakash Shah (Queen Mary, University of London), focus on recent debates about customary practices among religious minorities in Britain. Looking at the case of Islamic family law in the UK in Accommodating minority legal orders, Maleiha Malik makes the case for the principle of ‘cultural voluntarism’, which, she argues, offers a way of incorporating minority customs while encouraging minority groups to reconsider their traditional practices. In The moral basis of anti-caste legislation, Prakash Shah on the other hand focuses on the recent debate about discrimination on grounds of caste, and argues that the proposal to outlaw caste-based discrimination has more to do with Western cultural perceptions than addressing genuine problems.

Also focusing on discrimination, the third article, Religious discrimination against teachers in faith schoolsby Lucy Vickers (Oxford Brookes University), examines the law on the employment of teachers in religious schools in England. Questioning the extent to which Voluntary Aided faith schools can impose religious requirements on teaching staff, she highlights possible tensions between English and EU employment law in the area.

In the final two articles, Nasar Meer et al. (University of Northumbria) and David Perfect (EHRC) take a more general view, looking at the 2010 Equality Act and its predecessors. In Rolling on or rolling backwards?Nasar Meer et al. examines how far the Act goes in recognising intersections between different forms of inequality, while in Religion or belief and the law, David Perfect explains the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s role in supporting certain legal cases and providing information and advice about religion or belief and the law.


[1] Linda Woodhead, ‘Religion or Belief’: Identifying Issues and Priorities (Manchester: Equality and Human Rights Commission, 2009), 4.