Belfast Telegraph

Discrimination on grounds of religious belief and/or political opinion

By Siobhan Harding

A recent case taken with the support of the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland focused on the issue of selection for redundancy on the grounds of religious belief.

In the case Julie Brudell a Protestant teacher won her case against Ballykelly Primary School for discrimination on the grounds of religious belief and was awarded over £8,000 in damages at a Fair Employment Tribunal. Ballykelly Primary School has both Protestant and Catholic pupils and at the time of the redundancy decision the majority of pupils were Catholic. Five of the fifteen teachers in the school were Catholic and none of these was among the four teachers selected for redundancy. Legislation outlawing religious discrimination in employment has been in place since 1976. However this protection did not extend to teachers. In 2003 the exemption for teachers was narrowed so that only recruitment matters remain exempt. Selection of a teacher for redundancy on grounds of religion is therefore unlawful. The rest of this article will look at the existing protection against discrimination on the grounds of religious belief and/or political opinion which applies to most workers.

The Fair Employment and Treatment (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 (FETO) makes it unlawful to discriminate on the grounds of religious belief and/or political opinion in employment and vocational training. A person may believe that they have been discriminated against because they are Catholic or Protestant, nationalist or unionist or because they do not hold any of these beliefs or opinions. Political opinion is not solely limited to Northern Ireland politics and religious belief includes other religions and faiths, for example, Judaism, Islam and Buddhism.

The legislation outlaws four types of discrimination which a person can complain about to a Fair Employment Tribunal. Direct discrimination is where someone is treated less favourably on the grounds of their religious belief and/or political opinion than another person in the same or similar situation. For example, the best person in a company was not given a promotion because of their religion while a less able person of a different religion was promoted. Direct discrimination on the grounds of religious belief or political opinion can include discrimination based on an employer's perception of a person’s religious belief or political opinion, even if that perception is incorrect.

Indirect discrimination on the grounds of religious belief or political opinion occurs when an employer applies a provision, criterion or practice to a person which, while apparently applying to everyone, puts or would put people of that religion or belief at a particular disadvantage when compared with other people and cannot be shown by the employer to be a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. For example, if an employer restricts a job opportunity solely to internal candidates where their workforce is wholly or mainly drawn from one community and this has the effect of disadvantaging potential applicants of the under-represented religion.

Under the law a person can make a freestanding claim for harassment on the grounds of their religious belief or political opinion, that is, an act distinct from direct or indirect discrimination. Harassment is defined as unwanted conduct on the grounds of religious belief or political opinion, which has the purpose or effect of violating a person's dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that person. Harassment does not have to be deliberate – the effect on the person being harassed and their perception of the behaviour will be taken into account by an industrial tribunal. The law also protects people from victimisation. A person is protected if they bring proceedings or give evidence under the legislation, or give evidence or information in connection with proceedings brought by someone else. For example, if a worker loses overtime because they supported a colleague who took a discrimination case against their employer, they could claim for victimisation.

Further information on anti-discrimination laws is available from your local CAB or from the Equality Commission on 028 90 890 890 or from their website at

Siobhan Harding is an Information and Policy Officer with Citizens Advice

Belfast Telegraph