Protecting religious observance may disadvantage minorities in the longer term

Last week, an employment tribunal in Bedford judged Tesco to have indirectly discriminated against two Muslim employees by restricting access to an on-site prayer room at one of its distribution depots. This prayer room had been in operation for several years, but management decided that it should be kept locked when not in use, that those using the room should sign a book, and that prayer should be individual rather than in groups.

The case was supported by the Northamptonshire Rights and Equality Council and the claimants were represented by one of its caseworkers. The employees were awarded undisclosed compensation for injury to their feelings.

There is no legal obligation to offer a prayer room, although employers have been encouraged to offer them by business groups and government. Clearly, however, businesses will have to tread warily in future (religious discrimination claims are now running at about 1,000 a year) and it is possible that last week’s judgment will discourage some companies from offering prayer facilities. It may discourage others, sadly, from employing Muslim workers. While blatant cases of discrimination will attract legal sanction, subtler employer preferences are impossible to police, particularly in smaller firms.

Coming on top of the recent brouhaha over women wearing the niqab, and with 14-year-old boys being banned from lessons in Accrington for growing beards for religious reasons, this raises again the question of how far the assertion of rights should be taken in a multicultural society. 

If we believe the right to practise religious observance is absolute, I guess there is no issue. However if we are also concerned about the longer-term consequences for minorities perhaps some concerns should be expressed – particularly where, as may often be the case, parents are pressurising children to adopt extreme versions of faiths.

The issue is not entirely new, nor linked exclusively to Muslims – in the past concerns have arisen in relation to Jehovah’s Witnesses and to some African churches.

Nor is the UK alone in worrying about this. I have recently been reading a study, published in Economic Policy a couple of years ago, which reported on analysis of a survey conducted in 20 European countries. This found that, across Europe, ‘integrated’ second-generation immigrants on average fared as well in the labour market as natives. However, those second-generation immigrants who retained a marked cultural identity (using another language at home, having a strong religious commitment and adhering strongly to tradition and customs of their community) had a lower chance of finding a job. This of course has knock–on effects in increasing alienation, perhaps leading to major urban unrest as in the French banlieue, and will probably involve increased public expenditure.

Does this disadvantage result from discrimination? Certainly, in part. It is not just employer discrimination, either: some customers may also choose to avoid, for example, shops which employ assistants who wear religious clothing. Maybe deplorable, but probably unavoidable.

But another reason for this disadvantage is that people who ostentatiously set themselves apart from the mainstream may also lose out by having closed networks. Young people with a wide circle of friends and acquaintances may have better labour market information and opportunities than those who only know peers from their own community. They are perhaps more likely to be at ease in a work context, and fare better when it comes to job interviews and promotion.

It is a difficult question for liberals. We don’t want to see the state ordering people to dress or behave in public in a particular way. At the same time, do we need to support legal decisions to penalise employers like Tesco which, though they may have acted in a slightly insensitive manner, were genuinely trying to help employees? Or to offer state subsidies to religious schools which teach separateness from the host society?

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