Religious freedom in the workplace was the topic of a panel discussion at the United Nations in New York City. The event was co-hosted by the United Kingdom Mission to the U.N. and Brigham Young University’s International Center for Law and Religion Studies. The panel of legal and religion experts was assembled by BYU law professor W. Cole Durham Jr. on October 24, 2014.
“Some of our greatest good has been accomplished by people who asserted their conscience,” said Durham, who encouraged the support of faith and belief throughout the world.
Diplomats from missions to the U.N., representatives from nongovernmental agencies (NGOs) and others interested in fostering religious freedom attended the discussion. Panelists responded to recommendations from an interim report from Heiner Bielefeldt, a human rights professor at the University of Erlangen-Nurnburg in Germany, who serves as U.N. Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief.
Durham said Bielefeldt’s report “helps to remind us that we live in a world with deep difference, in which peace can only be grounded on an obligation to respect everyone else’s existential choices, within the limits of optimal equal liberty for all.”
Bielefeldt, who attended the panel discussion, said many people spend a large portion of their day at work, and more needs to be done to prevent and eliminate religious intolerance and discrimination in the workplace. Employers should “generally understand religious tolerance and diversity as a positive asset and important part of their corporate identity,” he said.
“Equality is not sameness,” Beilefeldt emphasized. “It means equal respect for people’s beliefs.”
He and other panelists encouraged “reasonable accommodation” on the part of employers, including areas of religious dress, practice and holidays.
Lucy Vickers, a professor of law at Oxford Brooks University in England, noted that work is not a private space and at times becomes a place of both direct and indirect religious discrimination.
Todd R. McFarland, associate general counsel for the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, echoed the sentiment, saying people should not have to “choose between living their religion and making a living.”
Recognizing that religion and belief are an integral part of every human being, Richard Foltin, director of National and Legislative Affairs, American Jewish Committee, put it this way: “We cannot expect people to leave their religion at the door of the workplace.”
Panelists agreed with Bielefeldt’s recommendations and urged the international human rights community to take religious freedom seriously. “This report was a step forward to strengthen this position on the ground,” said Peter Petkoff, director of the Religion, Law, and International Relations Programme at Regents Park College, in Oxford, England.