Written by Julie Dawson, Head of HR Consultancy, Alcumus

Is it discriminatory on the grounds of faith/religion to refuse to give an employee 5 weeks off in for religious observation?

Mr Gareddu, a Roman Catholic employee from Sardinia, has gone back to his homeland in August every year to attend a series of religious events with his family and his employer (London Underground) had previously allowed him to take five weeks’ annual leave off in one block to fulfil his request.

However there was a change of management, and he was given notice that he would not be able to continue with the arrangement from 2014. His employer gave the reason that it was unfair to others as this arrangement could not be extended to all employees in his small team. They said that although he could take up 15 days’ annual leave in one block, he was “not the only member of staff who has family commitments during the summer holiday”.

It turned out that Mr Gareddu had by then already arranged his holiday for the following year so his request in 2014 was granted but his line manager made it clear that this would be the last time such a holiday request would be agreed.

Mr Gareddu raised a grievance, which was rejected. The employer stressed that:

  1. Requests for more than three weeks’ leave are relatively rare, and are normally requested only for major life events, such as marriage or a once-in-a-lifetime holiday; and,
  2. While the practice of not granting more than 15 days’ annual leave could disadvantage someone with a clear belief system, Mr Gareddu’s desire to attend a large number of religious festivals was a purely personal choice that did not amount to a protected characteristic.

Mr Gareddu was unhappy about this decision and took his case to an employment tribunal who rejected his religious discrimination claim.  The Tribunal agreed with the employer’s assessment that attendance at the festivals was not a requirement of his religion and that his attendance in Sardinia for five weeks related more to his family arrangements, rather than any underlying religious beliefs.