Discrimination revealed: UK Christians have to keep faith hidden

British Airways employee Nadia Eweida, who was forbidden to wear a cross around her neck, won her case at Europe's human rights court in 2013,Reuters

The little Christian girl had been taught in church that God created the universe.

When she repeated this belief at school, the teacher ridiculed her in front of the class and said only "religious nutters" held such beliefs.

This is just one of the stories of discrimination against Christians in the workplace uncovered in a new consultation, which also found evidence that atheists were being discriminated against by some Christians.

Employees feel under increasing pressure to keep their religion hidden at work and they also feel discriminated against when it comes to wearing religious symbols or expressing their beliefs, the consultation found.

Christians in particular feel discriminated against.

Christians said they were mocked for their beliefs by colleagues who assumed they were bigoted.

Jewish and Muslim respondents also reported discrimination, such as finding it hard to get time off work, even as part of their normal annual leave, for religious observance. Others alleged that they were excluded from meetings, or passed over for promotion or recruitment due to their beliefs. They felt unable to raise the issue for fear of repercussions.

Humanists and atheists also described discrimination, such as unwanted religious proselytising at work. They complained they did not have access to counselling support in hospital as chaplains were provided on a religious basis. Atheists also felt excluded in workplaces which held prayer meetings or events in religious buildings.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission public consultation is the largest ever of its kind and revealed wide confusion over laws protecting religion or belief.

The Commission wanted to find out what people experience in their day to day lives, including how to deal with the right to express beliefs which others might view as offensive.

A report on how well the laws protecting religion or belief are working will be published later this year.

Nearly 2,500 people of all faiths and none, across the public and private sectors, responded to the call for evidence. Christians provided the most responses, with some fearing that religion is losing its place in society.

Christian parents also reported their children being ridiculed in schools for their beliefs, such as believing that God created the world. Humanist parents also reported their children being mocked. One young child was told that he didn't deserve Christmas presents because he didn't believe in God.

Some Christian-run services or businesses were "in turmoil" about behaving in ways that they feared might breach the Equality Act 2010, which protects people from discrimination in the workplace and in access to goods and services.

Mark Hammond, chief executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said: "What came out strongly was the widespread confusion about the law, leading to some resentment and tensions between groups and anxiety for employers who fear falling foul of what they see as complicated equality and human rights legislation."

More than 1,000 Christians sent in evidence, along with nearly 200 atheists, as well as agnostics, humanists, Jews, Muslims, and those who described themselves as of no religion or non-religious. There were also a few responses came from Buddhist, Hindu and Sikh organisations and individuals.

Examples of reported discrimination included a Catholic who said: "The wearing or 'showing of' a crucifix, rosary or any other Catholic jewellery was forbidden, yet nose rings, tongue piercings and tattoos were ok."

Another Christian said: "The teacher replied that people who are 'religious nutters' are those who believe that God created the universe. [My daughter] told him that as a Christian she believes that God created the universe to which the teacher ridiculed her in front of the class."

A humanist teacher said: "As an unmarried woman, I was told I was not allowed to talk to the children about my 'condition [pregnancy]', and that I would struggle to gain a promotion in any local school. I was also advised to wear a pretend wedding ring."

A non-Christian said: "My employer, a firm of accountants, informed me after I had been working for several months, that I would not get promotion to Partner unless I attended office prayers and practised as an evangelical Christian."

A law firm manager reported: "When I organised a Christmas party a couple of employees objected on the basis that the use of the word Christmas would promote a religious belief. We had to agree upon 'an End of Year Party/Christmas Party according to your beliefs'. I was offended but the boundaries have become unclear."

A humanist mum said: "My son, aged eight, was called over by a dinner lady and asked if he believed in God. When he said no she told him he didn't deserve any Xmas presents. I made a written complaint to the head teacher, but was told the dinner lady had said her comments were a joke and she was not able to discuss the incident further."

The Evangelical Alliance called for clarity into the right to express religious beliefs.

Dr Don Horrocks, head of public affairs, said: "We warmly welcome the new constructive tone from the Commission and that they finally seem to be trying to take religion and belief seriously and focus on properly recognising the protected characteristic of religion and belief. This comes after many years of largely ignoring Christians and actually opposing their concerns in the courts.

"However, there remains a clear reluctance to tackle infringement of freedom of conscience and the emergent hierarchy of human rights, which has left people of faith firmly at the bottom and often wondering whether in practice religion and belief is a protected right at all. There is a long way to go to achieve parity and equality on a fair playing field with other rights."

Dr Horrocks added: "When rights conflict, the test of equality legislation is whether it results in genuinely fair outcomes for everyone. If one group of protected rights is consistently trumped by others then equality is not working. Equality is important, but unless it is expressed fairly in the context of recognised diversity then it can become oppressive and end up being wielded as a blunt weapon to silence those we disagree with."