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Lifting the veil on religious discrimination


West Yorkshire teaching assistant Aishah Azmi is to appeal against the employment tribunal’s decision to refuse her claim of religious discrimination.

Yesterday’s judgment found against Mrs Azmi on three of the four claims she made, including religious discrimination and harassment, but awarded her £1,100 for victimisation.

According to press reports, the tribunal’s judgment was finalised on 6 October but a new paragraph was inserted deploring the political comments on the case.

Unfortunately, Mrs Azmi’s case was going through the system at the same time as Jack Straw wrote his article in which he confessed to being uncomfortable when veiled women visited him in his surgery.

As a result, her case has been caught up in the political furore which followed Mr Straw’s comments, which is less than helpful for HR managers who wish to understand what the law requires.

The Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003 provide that it is discrimination to treat someone less favourably on the grounds of their religion or belief.

It is also discriminatory to apply a business-wide practice that would treat someone less favourably because of their religious beliefs. For example, a requirement that everyone should have their hair uncovered, although applying to everyone, would be detrimental to anyone whose religion requires them to cover their hair.

Although practising Muslim women are required to cover their hair, the niqab – the veil which covers the face – is not compulsory. But some women choose to wear it as a demonstration of their faith and as a result it is clearly a part of their religious beliefs.

But section three of the regulations provides that it is possible for an employer to impose a practice if it is proportionate to achieving a legitimate aim.

In the case of Mrs Azmi, it seems that there were times when she taught languages while wearing the veil. Kirklees Council took the view that this impeded the children’s education and therefore it was legitimate to ask her to remove the veil.

In a statement it said: “As an employer Kirklees Council actively promotes and encourages equality and diversity and respects the wishes of employees to express their religious and cultural beliefs.

“Mrs Aishah Azmi is employed as a bilingual support worker which is a crucial role in a school where English is spoken as a second language by a large proportion of pupils.

“In this case the school and local authority had to balance the rights of the children to receive the best quality education possible and Mrs Azmi’s desire to express her cultural beliefs by wearing a veil in class.

”The education of the children is of paramount importance and it is disappointing that the school was unable to reach a compromise with Mrs Azmi in this case. However, the tribunal has agreed that the action taken was correct.

”The decision that Mrs Azmi should not wear a veil while communicating with children in class was taken after a monitoring period where the impact of wearing the veil on the teaching and learning was studied.”

But Mrs Azmi’s solicitor, Nick Whittingham, of Kirklees Law Centre, told the BBC: “This is a new area of law in terms of religious belief discrimination. It’s untested so we need to be taking that to a higher court.”

At HR Zone we’ll be keeping you up-to-date with this issue. For the moment, the top tips are to:

  • Remember that all religions, including Christianity, are covered by the regulations

  • Try to reach an agreement with the employee

  • Make sure that your proceedings are transparent

  • If you want to refuse to allow the wearing of religious symbols then you can only do so if it will achieve a legitimate aim, eg health and safety.

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