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Want to stay on the right side of the law? We support businesses and public authorities and help them to promote good practice.

Religious belief/ political opinion

Providers of goods and services

What you need to know

How we can help

Making it work


What does the law say?

It is unlawful for those providing services to the public to discriminate against people on grounds of their religious belief and/or political opinion.

What responsibilities do I have as a provider of goods and services?

All organisations which provide services to the public, whether large or small, are subject to fair employment law and should not discriminate or harass on the grounds of a person’s religious belief or political opinion.


As a provider of goods, facilities and services you have a responsibility to ensure that your employees do not discriminate against individuals. An employee who discriminates on religious belief/political opinion grounds will usually be regarded as acting in the course of their employment, even if you have issued express instructions not to discriminate. This is called “vicarious liability”.


However, in legal proceedings against a service provider based on the actions of an employee, it is a defence that the service provider took, ‘such steps as were reasonably practicable’ to prevent such actions. Reasonable steps would include having an equality policy, communicating it to staff and implementing it effectively. It is not a defence for the service provider simply to show that the action took place without its prior knowledge or approval.


What services are covered by the law?

  • The provision of goods, facilities and services
  • Access to and use of any place which members of the public are permitted to enter
  • Accommodation in a hotel, boarding house or other similar establishment
  • Facilities by way of banking or insurance or for grants, loans or finance
  • Facilities for training
  • Facilities for entertainment, recreation or refreshment
  • Facilities for transport or travel
  • The services of any profession, trade or business open to the public


It is also unlawful, on the grounds of race or ethnic or national origin, for a service provider to harass a person to whom it provides goods, facilities or services or to harass someone who seeks to obtain any of these goods or services.


What other areas are covered

It is unlawful for anyone selling, letting or managing property or premises (including land) to discriminate on grounds of religious belief and political opinion. For example,it would be unlawful for a landlord to refuse to rent or to evict someone on the basis of their religious belief and political opinion.

For example:

  • A landlord agrees to rent a house to Peter and his family.  He changes his mind when he realises Peter is not the same religion as he is.  The landlord’s treatment is likely to amount to direct religious discrimination.

It is also unlawful to apply discriminatory practices, publish discriminatory advertisements, instruct or put pressure on a person to do anything contrary to the law by discriminating in employment or other fields, or to knowingly aid another person to carry out such acts.


Am I liable for the actions of my employees?

Yes. As a service provider you are legally responsible for the actions your employees in the course of their employment. An employee who discriminates against a customer will usually be regarded as acting in the course of their employment, even if you have issued express instructions not to discriminate. This is called “vicarious liability”.


However, in legal proceedings against a service provider based on the actions of an employee, it is a defence that the service provider took 'such steps as were reasonably practicable' to prevent such actions. Reasonable steps would include having an equality policy which covers the provision of goods, facilities or services which is communicated to staff and implemented effectively.  It is not a defence for the service provider simply to show that the action took place without its knowledge or approval.


Are there exceptions?

There are some exceptions to the general principles of discrimination on the grounds of religious belief/political opinion:


  • Employment or occupation as a clergyman or minister of a religious denomination
  • Employment or occupation where the essential nature of the job requires it to be done by a person holding,or not holding,a particular religious belief or political opinion
  • Recruitment of teachers in schools
  • Access to training facilities in certain circumstances where the employer is taking lawful affirmative action
  • Selection for redundancy in certain circumstances where an employer is taking lawful affirmative action
  • Measures to encourage applications from an under-represented community where the employer is taking lawful affirmative action
  • Recruitment from the unemployed
  • Benefits conferred by charities on persons of a particular religious belief or political opinion
  • Acts done under statutory authority in the provision of goods,facilities or services or premises
  • Acts done to safeguard national security or to protect public safety or public order

< Service providers

How we can help

We believe that helping you promote and encourage good equal opportunities practice is as important as enforcing the equality law. Every year, the Commission helps hundreds of businesses and organisations comply with equality laws.

We recognise that employers' needs differ across sectors and businesses – so we tailor our services to meet employers’ varying needs.


We provide high quality training seminars and information sessions to employers on a wide range of equality issues.

These events provide advice and guidance on employers’ duties under current equality laws and on introducing best practice. We recommend that employers carefully consider their needs and choose the seminars and sessions which are of most benefit to them.


    Training sessions include:

   •  Introduction to understanding equality
   •  Equality training for line managers
   •  Recruiting fairly
   •  Bullying and harassment at work
   •  Pregnancy, maternity and flexible working
   •  Absence and performance management
   •  Promoting disability in the workplace 
   •  Reasonable steps defence
   •  How to complete an Article 55 Review
   •  Monitoring form workshops







We are flexible in terms of themes covered and can tailor courses to suit employers’ business needs. Further details are available on our employer training page or contact us Tel: 028 90 500 600, email


In-house training

On occasion, the Commission can provide in-house training for organisations.  Where we agree to such a request, we will normally deliver one session to key staff within the organisation and assist them to disseminate the training internally. For in-house training requests, contact Frances Nugent, email  Tel: 028 90 500600.

Speakers for your event

If you are organising an equality related event, our staff can share their expertise to highlight relevant issues in equality law that relate to your business priorities. For further information, contact Paul Oakes  Tel: 028 90 500600.

Employer news ezine

To receive updates on our training seminars, events and employer equality networks sign up to receive our Employer & Service Providers' Newsletter using the subscribe button at the bottom of the page.


Driver & Vehicle Agency
changing procedures
Selling land
religious/political discrimination case
Letting Agent
religious discrimination case

Driver and Vehicle Agency
For Muslim women, being alone in a car with a male examiner when taking their driving test poses difficulties. To tackle this problem the Driver and Vehicle Agency (DVA) allow anyone taking the test to nominate a family member, friend or their driving instructor to sit in the back of the car whilst they are taking their test.

It is an option that is proving incredibly popular, with a large number of candidates deciding to be accompanied during their driving test.

The DVA have also introduced new software that allows candidates to choose to have their theory test questions read in a choice of 20 languages. Candidates can now answer the questions in their chosen language.


Ms McDermott, a Catholic agreed to sell land to Mr McDermott also a Catholic even though Mr McKelvey a Protestant had placed several bids on the land. Mr McKelvey made a complaint of religious and political discrimination.

An agreement was then reached between Ms McDermott and Mr McKelvey to advertise the land and accept the highest bidder. Mr McDermott was subsequently invited to engage in the bidding process however believing he already had a legally binding contract issued proceedings.

The Court found both of the contracts were lawful however the first had been tainted with unlawful discrimination. It ordered in favour of the highest bidder Mr McKelvey and the second contract while awarding Mr. McDermott an innocent party £20,000 and costs for loss of profit.

It is important that people selling land seek advice from the Equality Commission to avoid discrimination.


John Dallat a Catholic, member of the SDLP and MLA tried to rent space for his constituency office in a shopping centre in Limavady. The letting agent initially agreed to let him the office but later refused when an objection from other tenants was raised. Mr Dallat believed the objection came from an existing DUP tenant who also had his constituency office there. He made a complaint of religious and political discrimination.

The case settled and Mr Dallat accepted his refusal was on commercial grounds. At the same time the agent accepted they had provided Mr Dallat with an ambiguous explanation and had failed to properly define the reasons for the refusal.

The Equality Commission provides free advice on equality laws that apply to letting agents and landlords.


This is a selection of publications that are most relevant to providers of goods, facilities and services.


Additional publications

Further publications are available in our publications database

For further guidance please contact our Advice and Compliance team - 028 90 500 600


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