This perspective aims to explore and communicate the strategic approaches developed by equality bodies on the ground of religion or belief; the body of work carried out on the ground of religion or belief; and the implications and learning from this work.
The ground of religion or belief is growing in importance in the work of equality bodies. This is seen as principally due to a growing number of discrimination complaints and requests for guidance on this ground, but also due to the changing composition of societies with migration, the growing presence of minority religions, and the increasing hostility of public discourse. Many equality bodies have yet to accord significant priority to this ground due to lack of resources, the low number of complaints and under-reporting, and the limited nature and range of scientific debate and work on this ground.
This persective is based on a roundtable discussion of the Policy Formation Working Group and a survey of Equinet members about their work on the ground of religion or belief. Twenty equality bodies in eighteen different countries responded to the survey.
Most equality bodies identify combating and eliminating discrimination as the key focus for their work on this ground. In going beyond this ambition, the core concept underpinning the strategy of most equality bodies is one of seeking a reasonable accommodation of religious diversity. This builds on the work developed by equality bodies on the ground of disability and extends it to the ground of religion or belief.
All equality bodies reported some legal work on the ground of religion or belief. Casework addresses issues in relation to accommodating religious symbols and religious customs, usually in the workplace, but also in relation to accessing services, in education, and in the provision of ID cards; issues in education in relation to access to schools, teaching of religious education in schools, accommodating religious symbols and religious customs in schools; and issues in employment including job refusal, promotion, dismissal, and job requirements, with a particular focus on institutions of a religious ethos.
Particular barriers in taking action on the ground of religion or belief included the sensitivities and political concerns surrounding the ground, stereotypes based on religion, limited employer understanding of the ground, lack of clear definitions of the ground, reluctance on the part of religious organisations to engage with the equality body, and a lack of relevant data.
While there are exceptions, the lack of engagement between equality bodies and representatives of religious communities is notable. Developing networks that reflect shared issues of concern on this ground at a strategic level, beyond the concerns of individual groups, was identified as difficult. This contrasts with the work being done by equality bodies with civil society on most other grounds. It limits the channels of communication for equality bodies in relation to this ground and does little to address issues of under-reporting.
The ground of religion or belief is coming more to the forefront for equality bodies as they observe increasing tensions around the ground and growing difficulties experienced by minority religions. Gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation are also grounds reported as being in tension with the ground. The good practice examples in this perspective could further enable equality bodies to gear up to taking on this challenge in a strategic manner. It would be particularly valuable to increase the level of casework on the ground to address issues of under-reporting and to bring clarity to the provisions on this ground.
Gender, racial or ethnic origin, and age were the grounds most often found to intersect with the ground of religion or belief. Socio-economic status was also identified. There is a body of work to draw from in this perspective in expanding the horizontal approach deployed by most equality bodies to this ground by including specific actions on the ground of religion or belief and taking on initiatives responding to groups at the intersections with this ground.
There is a need for more clarity and agreement on the definition of belief. Some equality bodies are developing fruitful action on the ground of belief. This will need further examination, dissemination and development if the full potential in the ground of religion or belief is to be realised.
There remain issues in the manner in which the ground of religion or belief is addressed in equal treatment legislation:
The EU Directives do not require the establishment of an equality body with a mandate including religion or belief. This needs to be rectified along with the development and implementation of ambitious standards for the independence and effectiveness of equality bodies.
The European Commission has, in recent years, advanced valuable initiatives at a European level and across the Member States on the ground of religion or belief. This is vital in establishing some priority for work on this ground and in mobilising the full range of stakeholders required for this work to be effective. It would be valuable for this commitment to continue and further develop. In this regard the European Commission Fundamental Rights Colloquium on Tolerance and Respect: Preventing and combating anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim hatred in Europe in October 2015 is a welcome step.