Vegans and druids to gain workplace rights under new equality rules

A document published for employers by the Equality and Human Rights Commission suggests that ecologists could ask to be excused from duties that increase CO2 emissions, such as flying to business meetings, and that druids and pagans should be allowed to take time off work to go on pilgrimages and attend sacred rituals.

The guidance, which also applies to Christians, Jews and Muslims and atheists, was produced after a series of judgments by the European Court of Human Rights, including the ruling that Christians can wear a cross at work.

It states that "employees may assert the right to discuss their personal beliefs in the workplace and employers should not prevent such conversations". Bosses should "consider seriously" adapting the relevant work duties to suit their employees beliefs.

It insists that such beliefs should be "more than an opinion or a viewpoint", should be genuinely and sincerely held and worthy of respect in a democratic society.

The document, Religion or Belief in the Workplace: a guide for employers, details a series of hypothetical scenarios to illustrate how such rights should be protected.

It suggests that a Christian nurse could say prayers for a patient, if it is made clear that there is no pressure or obligation on the patient to agree.

The guidance says that ecologists should be permitted to tell colleagues that it is irresponsible to drive to work because it damages the environment. They could also ask to be excused from duties that increase CO2 emissions.

Jewish workers should be allowed to leave the workplace early on a Friday to prepare for the Sabbath, if it does not adversely affect other members of their team.

Requests by Muslims to take time off to attend prayers at a local mosque should also be serious considered.

Religious workers should be allowed to wear symbols such as crosses and clothing such as hijabs or turbans, the document suggests. They should also be allowed to have a beard if it is considered integral to their belief system.

It advises that religious people may also seek to promote their beliefs so long as this is not intimidating, hostile or offensive to others, and that leaflets can be distributed.

The document comes three months after a Christian airline check-in clerk won the right to wear a cross at work in a landmark case that was expected to define religious freedom in Britain and across Europe.

The Strasbourg court concluded that the UK had failed to protect the rights of Nadia Eweida, a British Airways check-in clerk who was sent home because the small cross she wore contravened the airline’s uniform policy – a policy which has since been changed.

The Vegetarian Society welcomed the guidance, saying that it gave official recognition that "vegetarianism can be and indeed often is a deeply held belief".

However, the Keith Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society, told The Sunday Times: "It is not (a) nurse's job to pray any more than it is to advance political or environmental opinions."

The EHRC said it did not make the law on what is or is not a legitimate religion or belief and stressed that employers were not required to accept the types of request offered as examples.

A spokesperson said: "The Commission's role is to provide free, expert advice to employers helping them understand and deal with what can be complex issues, and helping them avoid potentially costly legal action."

Mark Hammond, chief executive of the EHRC, said: "The right of people to express their religious belief is a vital freedom guaranteed by the European convention on human rights."