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Religious Holidays and Festivals - An Employer’s Responsibility

| Duncan & Toplis | 26 March 2019

Whilst most Christian religious holidays, such as Easter, enable individual's time to celebrate through bank or public holidays, there are some businesses where it is not viable to close on all bank holidays and for those who celebrate non-Christian beliefs there is no equivalent provision. 

This can cause a headache for employers where they have numerous requests for holiday when the business needs to be fully operationally and it may not always be possible to accommodate all requests due to the needs of the business.

Having a religion or belief is one of the nine protected characteristics covered by the Equality Act 2010 and under the act you will be protected if through the religion or belief someone:

  • Belongs to an organised religion
  • Takes part in collective worship
  • Belongs to a smaller religion or sect, such as Scientology,
  • Has a profound religious or philosophical belief which affects the way of life or view of the world (including any lack of belief, such as Atheism). This belief should be worthy of respect in a democratic society and compatible with the fundamental rights of others.

Requesting leave

Where an employee requests time off to attend a religious holiday or festival, an employer cannot simply refuse such a request without good reason as doing so could amount to indirect religious discrimination. The Equality Act 2010 does not require an employer to grant paid or unpaid leave for religious holidays and festivals therefore an employer could require someone to take the leave as paid annual leave and make such a request in the usual method for requesting annual leave.

Refusing leave

Wherever possible, annual leave requests by someone to attend their religious holiday or festival should be accommodated. Where an employer wants to refuse such a request, they must be able to justify the decision based on business grounds, showing that any refusal on the dates requested was a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. For example allowing that time off would create genuine problems for the business.

As religious holiday dates are normally set well in advance, it would be sensible to advise that as much notice as possible should be given and you have the right to apply a first come, first serve basis for any competing annual leave requests. Where this does occur and someone else's request has been approved, you are not required to cancel this holiday for someone who wants to take leave for religious reasons. If you grant annual leave for religious holidays for one religion but refuse for another that could be direct discrimination. All employees should be treated equally regarding requests to take annual leave and a consistent approach across all religion and beliefs.

It is advisable to outline your stance in an appropriate policy such as a Leave of Absence Policy and outline that any request is always subject to the needs of the business.


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