In Farrell v South Yorkshire Police Authority, an Employment Tribunal has considered whether a dismissed employee’s belief in a conspiracy theory surrounding a ‘New World Order’ and the terrorist attacks in 2001 and 2005 constituted a philosophical belief, such as to attract protection under the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003 (“the Regulations”). The Tribunal found that, although Mr Farrell’s beliefs did meet most of the requirements set out by the Employment Appeal Tribunal in the case of Grainger plc and others v Nicholson (finding that the beliefs were genuinely held, they related to weighty and substantial aspects of human life and behaviour, they were ‘beliefs’ rather than mere opinions, and they were not incompatible with human dignity), they did not attain a sufficient level of cogency or cohesion. As such, the Tribunal held that Mr Farrell’s beliefs did not satisfy the definition of a ‘belief’ under the Regulations and so therefore were not capable of protection against discrimination.

What happened in this case?

Mr Farrell was employed as a Principal Intelligent Analyst by the South Yorkshire Police Authority. He claimed to hold a belief in a ‘New World Order’, under which a ‘global elite’ (including the UK and US governments and world financial institutions) were seeking to “introduce a secret satanic ideology to enslave the masses and claim control of the world’s resources”. To this end, he believed in particular that the UK and US governments perpetrated the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 and 7 July 2005.

During his employment, Mr Farrell was asked to prepare a report for the South Yorkshire Police area, analysing the level of threats posed by various crimes (including terrorism). Mr Farrell made various comments in his report, specifically referring to his views regarding the New World Order and, in particular, his belief that the terrorist attacks in 2001 and 2005 were “sham” operations authorised by the US and UK governments “to divert attention from their own secret scheming and evil ways of the elite”. In light of the content of his report, Mr Farrell was invited to a disciplinary hearing. The South Yorkshire Police Authority took the view that Mr Farrell’s expression of his views was incompatible with his employment and that his position was therefore untenable. Mr Farrell was consequently dismissed.

Mr Farrell brought a claim in the Employment Tribunal for unfair dismissal and unlawful discrimination on the ground of his beliefs.     

The Employment Tribunal’s decision

The case of Grainger plc and others v Nicholson (reported in a previous blog) identified five criteria to be satisfied for a belief to attain protection under the Regulations:

  1. The belief must be genuinely held.
  2. It must be a belief and not an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available.
  3. It must be a belief as to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour.
  4. It must attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance.
  5. It must be worthy of respect in a democratic society, not be incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others.

The Tribunal dealt with Mr Farrell’s claim by considering these criteria, finding that criteria 1-3 and 5 above were satisfied. The case therefore concentrated on whether point 4 was satisfied, i.e. whether Mr Farrell’s belief was sufficiently cohesive and cogent.

On this point the Tribunal noted that the Employment Appeal Tribunal in Grainger had unfortunately not been specific about the level of cogency or cohesion required, simply referring to a “certain level”. The Tribunal also recognised that it should not expect too much from a Claimant in demonstrating the coherence of his beliefs, pointing to the fact that religious beliefs, for example, are not always susceptible to rational justification or explanation. Finally, the Tribunal also found that it was appropriate (and indeed important) to objectively scrutinise the nature of the Claimant’s beliefs, in order to consider whether the test of cogency and coherence was indeed met. In this regard, the Tribunal noted that, given that Mr Farrell’s beliefs related to matters where there is a substantial amount of evidence within the public domain (unlike, for example, a belief regarding the existence of a god), the scrutiny put on those beliefs must take into account such available evidence.

Taking all this into account, and considering Mr Farrell’s evidence as to the nature of his beliefs, the Tribunal found that Mr Farrell’s conspiracy theories simply failed to meet any minimum standard of cogency or coherence, and in fact, applying an objective test, were “absurd”. 

The Tribunal did not doubt the sincerity of Mr Farrell’s beliefs, but nevertheless found them not to constitute the definition of belief within the Regulations. Mr Farrell’s claim for discrimination on those grounds could not therefore continue. 

What this decision means to employers

This is the latest in a line of cases considering the question of what constitutes a belief for the purposes of the Regulations (and now the Equality Act 2010). Recent Tribunal decisions have meant that various beliefs (concerning, for example, climate change, the "higher purpose" of public service broadcasting, and anti-foxhunting) have been found to constitute philosophical beliefs under the Regulations. Whilst the trend of such cases indicated that the definition of a philosophical belief was perhaps wider than originally perceived, this current case demonstrates that Tribunals will still need to carefully consider each claim on a case by case basis. It is not a forgone conclusion that even a strong and genuinely held belief will attain protection under the Regulations, and it will be irrelevant how passionately an individual believes in their cause, if that cause is objectively incoherent. 

Employers might take reassurance from this, and from the fact that Tribunals are permitted to analyse the nature of the belief itself, rather than merely the extent to which the Claimant believes in it. It is also worth remembering that establishing that a belief is capable of protection is only the first step: a Tribunal then has to consider whether an employer unlawfully discriminated by reference to that belief. This is only a Tribunal decision and so is not legally binding, but is nevertheless perhaps indicative of how future Tribunals may approach such cases.  

However, employers do need to continue to exercise care when taking action against someone who has a strongly held belief, or treating such person differently from any other employees, as in many cases the individual concerned may well be able to meet all five criteria set out in Grainger. It is worth ensuring that equal-opportunities policies and staff training take into account various religions and widely-held beliefs, as well as ensuring that sufficient measures are in place to prevent harassment or victimisation of employees on all protected grounds, including belief.