It is unlawful for an employer to discriminate against someone on the grounds of:
- religious belief
- similar philosophical belief
- political opinion
Discrimination on any of these grounds may include discriminating against a person because they do not hold a particular religious or similar philosophical belief or political opinion (eg discriminating against a person because they are an atheist) or because you believe that they may hold a particular belief or political opinion (eg discriminating against a person because you think, perhaps wrongly, that they are an atheist or a Protestant or a Catholic).
Discrimination on religious grounds
'Religious belief' for the purposes of equality law covers any religious belief, or the absence of one (eg atheism).
Direct discrimination on religious grounds would occur if, for example, an employer paid Christians more than non-Christians or dismissed a Christian (or an atheist) because they are married to a Muslim.
Indirect discrimination on religious grounds would potentially occur if a requirement for working in a butcher's shop was that employees had to handle pork and pork products. This would potentially indirectly discriminate against employees who are observant Muslims and Jews, who regard pork meat as unclean. However, this job duty might be justified if the butcher could show that it was reasonably necessary for all his employees to perform it, such as, for example, where there is no practicable way to arrange the work so that this one employee does not have to perform the job duty.
Furthermore, the law would not require the butcher to cease selling pork.
Discrimination on similar philosophical belief
Case law indicates that the phrase 'similar philosophical belief' covers beliefs about weighty and substantial aspects of human life and behaviour. They must also attain certain levels of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance; and be worthy of respect in a democratic society, be not incompatible with human dignity and be not in conflict with the fundamental rights of others. Examples might include humanism, pacifism, veganism, spiritualism.
Discrimination due to political opinion
Political opinion for the purposes of equality law covers any lawful political opinion and includes long established opinions such as Communism, Socialism, Conservatism, Ulster Unionism, Irish Nationalism and more recent ones such as being in favour of, or opposed to, gay marriage. However, the protection of the law does not apply to any political opinion supporting or accepting the use of violence for political ends connected with the affairs of Northern Ireland or for putting the public, or a section of the public, in fear.
Note that you may be able to state that a job holder must be of a particular religion or belief where being of that religion or belief is a genuine occupational requirement - see discrimination when recruiting staff.
For more on these types of discrimination and discrimination law in general, see equality law and types of discrimination.