Legal Eyes: The Equality Act 2010 - The exemption for religious or belief organisations

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The Equality Act 2010 came into force on 1 October 2010.  Charities and social enterprises should be aware of the restrictions imposed by the Act – and the extent of the various exemptions from the new rules.

What does the Act do?

The Act prohibits discrimination in relation to certain “protected characteristics” in several areas, including employment, premises, education and the provision of goods, services and facilities.

The protected characteristics are listed in below:

  • age
  • disability
  • religion or belief
  • gender reassignment
  • marriage and civil partnership
  • pregnancy and maternity
  • race
  • sex
  • sexual orientation
Are there any exemptions?

The Act contains a number of exemptions from the prohibition on discrimination which may apply to charitable and community organisations.  These include the charities exemption (for further information, see the November edition of Legal Eyes), and exemptions relating to schools, education, sport, religion, associations and positive action.  

What is the exemption for religious or belief organisations?

This exemption allows organisations relating to a religion or belief (“religious organisations”) to discriminate on the grounds of religion, belief or sexual orientation in certain circumstances.

Religious organisations are defined as organisations the purpose of which is to:

  1. practise a religion or belief;
  2. advance a religion or belief;
  3. teach the practice or principles of a religion or belief;
  4. enable persons of a religion or belief to receive any benefit (or to engage in any activity) within the framework of that religion or belief; or
  5. foster or maintain good relations between persons of different religion or belief.
Commercial organisations do not qualify.

The exemption allows a religious organisation to impose restrictions on its membership, participation in its activities, the use of any goods, facilities or services it provides, and the use of its premises.

Any restriction can only be imposed by reference to a person’s religion or belief or sexual orientation.  In relation to religion or belief, the restriction is only permitted if it is imposed because of the purpose of the organisation or to avoid causing offence to members of that religion or belief.  

In relation to sexual orientation, the restriction is only permitted where it is necessary to comply with the doctrine of the organisation or in order to avoid conflict with the strongly held convictions of members of the particular religion or belief.  If, however, an organisation contracts with a public body to carry out an activity, then it cannot discriminate because of sexual orientation in relation to that activity.

The Charity Commission’s revised guidance on the Act and the exemptions available is due to be reissued in the Spring of 2011. 

Leona Roche is a solicitor at Bates Wells & Braithwaite, who gives general company, commercial and charity law advice to charities and social enterprises, with a particular focus on constitutional and governance issues.

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