Asking about reasonable accommodation in England

Published date01 June 2013
Date01 June 2013
Subject MatterArticles
Asking about
accommodation in
Prakash Shah
Interviews conducted with leading actors in England asking a range of questions about
religious diversity and the legal framework and, in particular, about reasonable accom-
modation, helped identify a number of areas of concern. There was some doubt about
whether specific legal provision should be brought in to guarantee reasonable accom-
modation. However, there was broad support for having the principle adopted in the
practice of employers, whereas some preferred the current informality rather than the
principle being enforced through litigation. None of the respondents came up with
illustrations outside Judaism, Christianity or Islam. The results are consistent with recent
critical studies showing that the assumption in social sciences that religion is a universal
has been imported from theology. Religion-based questions only pick out certain phe-
nomena specific to some cultures and an inevitable skew is created when asking such
questions because they make sense only within an Abrahamic religious framework.
Although enabling the identification of some aspects of culture considered to merit rea-
sonable accommodation on the grounds of religion, the results also pose questions
about the adequacy of current standard research methodologies which assume that reli-
gion is a universal.
Religion, religious studies, methodology, reasonable accommodation, discrimination,
religious freedom, Abrahamic religions, England
GLOCUL Centrefor Culture and Law, Department of Law, QueenMary, University of London, UK
Corresponding author:
Prakash Shah, GLOCUL Centre for Culture and Law, Department of Law, Queen Mary, University
of London, Mile End Road, London E1 4NS, UK.
International Journalof
Discrimination and theLaw
13(2-3) 83–112
ªThe Author(s) 2013
Reprints and permission:
DOI: 10.1177/1358229113487818
The UK RELIGARE project team conducted 27 fullinterviews with leading actors in the
field of religious diversity during the period March to September 2011.
The selection of
intervieweesprimarily depended on accessto them and the list of intervieweesrepresented
here is mainly composed of persons who work directly on behalf of a religious or ethnic
community as functionaries within their organisations, as educators, or as public intellec-
tuals who take a particular interest in that field (see Appendix).
These interviewees were,
subject to a lack of knowledge of particular specialised fields, fairly well informed about
the affairs of the religious communities in which they took an interest. The responses
which were most relevant to the question of reasonable accommodation on religious
grounds withinthe workplace were subsequentlyselected. This article providesan account
of, as well asa reflection upon, the responsesgiven, what we can learnfrom them about the
nature of reasonable accommodation in the workplace and, in more general terms, about
methodological approaches to researching religion. In so doing, it places the material
gained from the interviews in the context of a picture of diversity in Britain and of how
it links to patterns of claims-making by members of these diverse groups; the theoretical
presuppositions inherent to popular and academic approaches to religion; the legislative
structures shaping the claims raised through the legal system; and what types of claims
respondents generally raise when discussing reasonable accommodation on religious
A super-diverse Britain
The UK is a richly diverse society with a multiplicity of religious and ethnic groups rep-
resented in its population. This diversity is chiefly the result of post-war streams of
immigration, but also has a longer recorded history (Fryer, 1984; Holmes, 1988; Ker-
shen, 2005; Visram, 2002). Whereas these post-war streams at first consisted primarily
of Caribbean and South Asian immigrants, migration has diversified intensely in the last
few decades, adding to the plurality of the UK’s population, leading to the characterisa-
tion of British (and other European) urban spaces as ‘super-diverse’ (Vertovec, 2007).
This richness raises a range of questions of multicultural accommodation and, as in other
European countries, the British legal sphere has not remained immune from having to
find answers to those questions (Bradney, 1993; Grillo et al., 2009; Pearl and Menski,
1998; Poulter, 1986, 1990, 1998; Shah, 2005, 2007; Shah and Menski, 2006). Although
the discourses about, and legal responses to, alterity were initially formulated in terms of
‘race’ and then ‘ethnicity’ (Ballard, 1992), in recent years ‘religion’ and ‘faith’ (Grillo,
2010) have come to the fore as ‘identity markers’ (Bhamra, 2011) in unprecedented
ways. This is challenging established understandings and practices concerning the rela-
tionship of state and religion, the salience of secularism, secularisation and the role of
‘secular law’ amidst societal diversity, and how courts, legislation, and official practices
take into account ethnic and religious diversity in society.
The constraints and conventions of public discourse and the opportunity structures
offered by British legal systems condition the manner in which questions of accommo-
dation arise. Important influences include the conduct of state–religion relationships,
84 International Journal of Discrimination and the Law 13(2-3)

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