October 24, 2023
For young law students in the UK, understanding the nation’s approach to religious diversity is paramount, especially as society becomes increasingly pluralistic. Religious freedoms intersect with various legal areas, from employment rights to public space regulations and even family law. Let’s take a look at how law intersects with religious freedom in the UK.

Religious Wear In Workplaces & Public Spaces

The UK’s approach to religious wear has been a topic of discussion, especially in employment settings. At the heart of this is the Equality Act 2010, which prohibits discrimination based on several protected characteristics, including religion or belief. This act has implications for workplaces, schools, and other public spaces.

Case Spotlight: Eweida and Others v. The United Kingdom (2013)

This case centred on four individuals alleging their employers restricted their rights to manifest their religious beliefs. Notably, Nadia Eweida, a British Airways employee, was initially barred from wearing a cross necklace. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled in favour of Eweida, suggesting employers must strike a balance and avoid undue restriction of religious expressions.

However, the balance is delicate. Safety and professional appearance can sometimes necessitate limits on religious wear, but these should be carefully justified.

Religious Freedom vs Secularism

Secularism in the UK is not about curbing religious freedom but ensuring that public spaces and institutions remain neutral, allowing all beliefs to coexist harmoniously. The UK, while historically Anglican, doesn’t have an official state religion, allowing for a multiplicity of beliefs. However, challenges arise when religious practices appear to conflict with secular laws or norms. For instance, religiously motivated gender segregation in educational settings or religious slaughter practices can be contentious.

Article 9: Deep Dive into Rights and Breaches

The Human Rights Act 1998 embeds Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law, ensuring freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. This protection ensures individuals can hold and practise a religion, but this freedom is not absolute. It may be subject to limitations, especially when it impinges on the rights of others or broader societal interests.

The Right to Hold Beliefs

Article 9 vigorously defends one’s right to hold both religious and non-religious beliefs. It’s an absolute right, meaning the state can’t interfere with it. This extends to the right to adopt, change, or renounce your religion or beliefs. Significantly, individuals are protected from being coerced into having a particular faith.

The Right to Manifest Your Beliefs

Beyond just holding beliefs, Article 9 protects the right to express or ‘manifest’ these beliefs. This covers acts like wearing religious attire, discussing beliefs, and participating in religious rites. However, unlike the right to hold beliefs, the right to manifest them is a qualified right. It can be limited, especially if it encroaches on the rights of others.

Examples of Article 9 Breaches

  • Being prevented from wearing religion-specific uniforms in schools.
  • Prohibitions against wearing religious attire in workplaces or public arenas, such as courts.
  • Denial of time off from work or school for religious holidays.

Case Study Example

Imagine an employer forbidding an employee from wearing a necklace adorned with a cross, citing a uniform policy. This could be perceived as an infringement on the employee’s right to manifest their religion under Article 9. While this right is qualified, the employer must provide a robust legal rationale to prevent the employee from wearing the necklace


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Sharia Councils & UK Law

Sharia councils have been a focal point of discussion, particularly in relation to family law. These councils offer arbitration based on Islamic principles, primarily addressing marriage and divorce.

The key fact for law students to understand is that while Sharia councils can offer decisions, these are not legally binding in UK courts. The Arbitration Act 1996 allows parties to resolve disputes without resorting to litigation, and some might opt for religious arbitration. However, any decision made this way must still adhere to UK law.

Concerns and Considerations: Critics argue that some decisions, especially those relating to women’s rights in divorce proceedings, might not be equitable. The 2017 review into the application of Sharia law in England and Wales, commissioned by the Home Office, suggested that some women might not be aware of their legal rights, potentially leading to unjust outcomes. This highlights the importance of legal awareness and ensuring that religious arbitration doesn’t undermine statutory rights.

International Comparisons: France and Canada

When juxtaposing the UK’s approach to religious freedom with other nations, striking differences emerge.


Known for its doctrine of laïcité, France maintains a strict version of secularism, ensuring the state’s neutrality concerning religion. Originating from the French Revolution and later solidified in the 1905 Law on the Separation of the Churches and the State, laïcité means public institutions must be religiously neutral. This has led to significant legal actions:

  • Ban on Religious Symbols: In 2004, France passed a law prohibiting students in public primary and secondary schools from displaying any religious symbols. This mainly affected Muslim girls wearing hijabs, Sikh boys wearing turbans, and Jewish boys wearing kippahs.
  • Burqa and Niqab: In 2011, France became the first European country to ban the full-face Islamic veil in public places, a move that sparked international debates on freedom, integration, and women’s rights.


A paragon of multiculturalism, Canada’s approach to religious freedom is enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, a part of the country’s constitution. The Charter guarantees freedom of conscience and religion, and as a result, Canada has often been at the forefront of accommodating religious practices:

  • Multiculturalism Act: In 1988, Canada adopted the Canadian Multiculturalism Act, which commits the federal government to promote and recognize the understanding that multiculturalism is fundamental to the Canadian heritage and identity.
  • Religious Symbols in Public Services: Unlike France, Canada generally permits public service employees, including police officers and teachers, to wear religious symbols. However, there have been controversies, especially in the province of Quebec. The province’s Bill 21, passed in 2019, prohibits certain public workers from wearing religious symbols while at work, sparking debates and legal challenges.
  • Indigenous Spiritual Rights: Canada also grapples with balancing religious rights with its Indigenous populations, ensuring that Indigenous spiritual practices are respected and allowed, especially after historical periods of suppression.

Comparing the UK, France, and Canada offers a panoramic view of global stances on religious freedoms. While France’s stringent secularism contrasts sharply with Canada’s multicultural ethos, the UK seems to navigate a middle path, upholding individual freedoms but with qualifications in certain contexts.

Global Context

 The approach to religious wear and freedoms varies considerably worldwide. In countries like the US, the First Amendment ensures freedom of religion, leading to a more permissive stance on religious wear in public spaces and workplaces. Meanwhile, nations like Turkey have experienced shifts, moving from strict secular policies banning hijabs in universities and public jobs to a more relaxed stance in recent years.


The UK’s legal stance on religious diversity showcases the nation’s commitment to upholding individual freedoms while ensuring societal harmony. For budding legal professionals, understanding these intricacies will be crucial, especially as society grapples with an evolving mosaic of beliefs and practices. Balancing religious rights with secular norms, and ensuring that alternative legal structures complement rather than conflict with established law, will be ongoing challenges for the UK’s legal community.


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