Individuals have been protected against discrimination because of their religion or belief since 2003 and employers must be aware of the risks of intentionally and unintentionally treating someone less favourably on those grounds. The provision of annual leave could, theoretically, be one of the areas where employers must be careful.
The Equality Act 2010, the piece of law which provides protection from discrimination, does not say that employers must provide time off so that your staff can observe religious festivals. However, guidance dictates that you should look sympathetically at the request where it is reasonable and practical for the employee(s) to be away from work. This is because a blanket refusal for employees to take the time off that they have requested could potentially be an act of indirect discrimination. You would then have to look at objectively justifying your decision. This may mean being able to explain why your need for having a certain amount of staff in during the time in question is a proportionate means of achieving your aim (having sufficient staff in). Your aim must also be considered legitimate.
An employee would appear to have more of an argument for being allowed the time off if you shut down at Easter and Christmas etc., allowing staff days off in relation to observance of the Christian religion.
In practical terms, if you receive more requests than you could authorise, you need to discuss the situation with the staff and see if there is a compromise that can be reached.
For further clarification on this issue, please contact our Advice Service on 0844 892 2772.