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Catholic Union highlights “blind spot” on religious freedom at work

The Catholic Union has raised concerns that freedom of religion and belief in the workplace is under threat, especially in the public sector.

In a survey of Catholic Union members and supporters, almost a third of responders (31%) said they had felt disadvantaged at work because of their faith. The vast majority of these instances (73%) occurred in the public sector.

The survey was carried out to inform the Catholic Union’s evidence to a Parliamentary inquiry into human rights at work, which includes a section on freedom of religion and expression.

The Catholic Union’s survey highlighted particular problems in hospitals, universities and the police. One lay chaplain in an NHS hospital spoke of a “pathological closing down” of chaplaincy work, another responder was subject to a formal complaint for saying “God bless” to a patient.

Problems were also reported in the Arts where “people are ‘cancelled’ if they are even suspected to adhere to the teachings of the Catholic Church” according to one responder.

People who work shifts reported problems being able to attend Mass with one responder saying they had been “refused work due to Sunday obligations”, while another person said “I do not feel comfortable wearing a cross at work”.

Elsewhere, the survey found that:

  • 48% of responders said they did not feel able to talk about their faith openly with colleagues
  • 41% of responders did not believe religious discrimination was taken as seriously as discrimination against other protected characteristics such as age, race, sex, sexuality etc.
  • 55% of responders thought that that Christianity was treated less favourably than other religions in their place of work

Crossbench peer, Lord Alton, who sits on the JCHR, said that while progress had been made in removing discrimination at work, a “blind spot” existed in relation to religion.

The Catholic Union has shared the survey results with Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) who are carrying out an inquiry into human rights at work. The deadline for submitting evidence has been extended until 13 April, and the Catholic Union is encouraging people to take part.

Lord Alton commented: “People of all faiths should not be expected to shed or conceal an essential part of who they are when they go to their place of work. This is not only a point of principle: there are clear legal requirements around religious freedom as set out by the ECHR, in Article 18 of the UDHR, and elsewhere. We are getting better at removing discrimination at work on the basis of race, sex, orientation, and disability, but there is still a blind spot when it comes to religion.

“I will be encouraging my fellow Committee Members to consider the questions around freedom of expression in the workplace extremely seriously. Religious freedom is so often the canary in the mine for many of the freedoms we enjoy. Ignore discrimination or prejudice and it readily morphs into persecution and, then, in some parts of the world into appalling crimes against humanity.  We all lose out if religious freedom is eroded.”

Catholic Union Director, Nigel Parker, commented: “The results of our survey reflect what many of us have known and felt for a long time; that it is increasingly difficult to be a faithful and open Catholic in many workplaces in this country. Some of the comments were truly shocking and should be a wakeup call to those responsible for upholding human rights at work. If people did not take part in our survey but have experiences they want to share then there is still time to submit evidence to the Committee directly. We encourage as many lay Catholics as possible to have their say.”

Media summary

The results of the Catholic Union’s survey were covered in the following press stories:

Catholic Herald: Employers actively discriminate against people because of their faith, says new study

Independent Catholic News: Catholic Union highlights ‘blind spot’ on religious freedom at work

Premier Christian News: Religious discrimination at work a ‘blind spot’ compared to race, sex and disability, says Lord Alton

Premier Christianity: Caroline Farrow comment

Religion Media Centre: Religion news 3 April 2023

Sunday Telegraph: Religion is a ‘blind spot’ for discrimination at work, peer claims

The Christian Institute: Lord Alton: ‘We ignore workplace religious discrimination at our peril’

The Week: Ten Things You Need to Know Today 2 April 2023

Universe: Lord Alton and Catholic Union: Freedom of religion at work under threat