One of the protected characteristics contained in the Equality Act 2010 is that of religion or belief (these provisions were formerly contained in the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003). Belief is stated to mean any religious or philosophical belief. But what sort of beliefs qualify for protection as philosophical beliefs?
In a previous case, in which it was held that a belief in climate change was capable of protection, the EAT held that to qualify for protection a belief:
- Must be genuinely held
- Must be a belief and not an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available
- Must relate to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour
- Must attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance; and
- Must be worthy of respect in a democratic society and not conflict with the fundamental human rights of others.
In two recent tribunal cases two claimants have successfully persuaded a tribunal on the initial point that they hold a philosophical belief capable of protection. In a case taken against the BBC, an employment tribunal has held that a belief in the higher purpose of public service broadcasting was capable of protection. The claimant believed that public service broadcasting has the higher purpose of promoting cultural interchange and social cohesion. The tribunal found that his views were genuine and strongly held, shaped by his experiences of apartheid in South Africa.
In the second case an employment tribunal held that belief in the sanctity of life, extending to anti-fox hunting and anti-hare coursing, constituted a philosophical belief under the legislation. The case concerned a gardener who was a vegan and member of various animal rights groups. He believed that people should live their lives with mindful respect for animals and that we all have a moral obligation to live in a way which is kind to each other, our environment and our fellow creatures.
The employment tribunal held that his claim should be allowed to proceed to a full hearing on the basis that his beliefs could qualify as a ‘religion or belief’ under the 2003 Regulations. The tribunal said that the claimant’s views were genuinely held and were not merely an opinion or viewpoint. The judge accepted that moral issues involve difficult choices and the fact that the claimant had continued working for his employer even after he discovered that they were involved in hunting did not mean that his beliefs were not genuinely held or lacked coherence. His claim was allowed to proceed.
In both of these cases the claimants produced detailed written statements and gave lengthy evidence on which they were cross-examined. The judge in the animal rights case stressed that the case turned on its own facts and that not everyone who is opposed to fox hunting will have a philosophical belief capable of protection. The judge in the BBC case remarked that he did not think his decision would ‘open the floodgates’. He went on to point out that the real battleground will be whether there has been less favourable treatment and, if so, whether it was on the grounds of the belief relied on.