Some football fans follow their club across the world. It was even reported by Sky Sports last year that one 'superfan' hadn’t missed a QPR game since 1989. But can supporting a football club amount to a protected belief under the Equality Act 2010? Mr Eddie McClung certainly thinks so and is taking his former employer to an employment tribunal alleging that he lost a sub-contractor role because of his allegiance to Rangers Football Club.

Background

  • Mr McClung started working at a Grangemouth energy site in January 2019.
  • He alleges there were several instances where he was targeted by colleagues and managers for supporting Rangers.
  • In May 2019 he was given a week's notice and told there was not enough work for him.
  • He believes he was discriminated against due to his football allegiance.

What does the law say?

Under the Equality Act 2010 ("EqA"), it is unlawful to discriminate against or harass someone because of their religion or philosophical belief (or lack thereof). The concept of a philosophical belief is not defined in the EqA, but the case of Grainger plc v Nicholson has established that in order for a philosophical belief to be protected it must:

  • Be genuinely held;
  • Not just be an opinion or viewpoint;
  • Relate to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour;
  • Attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance; and
  • Be worthy of respect in a democratic society and not be incompatible with human dignity or conflict with the fundamental rights of others.

What kind of beliefs are protected?

The Grainger criteria has resulted in employment tribunals finding the following:

  • Ethical veganism was capable of being a protected philosophical belief, but vegetarianism was not.
  • A 'gender-critical' belief that sex was biologically immutable and that sex rather than gender identity was fundamentally important could be a philosophical belief.
  • Other philosophical beliefs which are capable of protection include a belief in anti-fox hunting, Brexit, Scottish independence, stoicism, and climate change / environmentalism.

A philosophical belief need only satisfy modest thresholds, and tribunals have held that only those beliefs that would be 'an affront to Convention principles in a manner akin to that of pursuing totalitarianism, or advocating Nazism, or espousing violence and hatred in the gravest forms' were not worthy of respect.

Even if a belief has been protected in the past, this does necessarily mean that the same conclusion would be reached in a different case - whether a belief is protected will depend on the particular facts and whether, and to what extent, the belief affects how the person lives their life.

Is supporting a football club a protected belief?

It has been reported that Mr McClung is going to argue that his support of Rangers FC is a protected belief because it:

  • Is genuinely held / not just an opinion – pointing to his memorabilia and regular attendance at games as evidence;
  • Relates to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour – he has many memories of going to games with his late father;
  • Has the required level of cogency, seriousness and importance – demonstrated by the time, money and effort which goes into being a fan.

It will be interesting to see exactly how the Grainger criteria are applied to the facts of this case. Proving that supporting a football club is more than just an opinion or viewpoint; that it relates to a substantial aspect of human life and behaviour; and that it attains a sufficient level of seriousness and importance is likely to be challenging.

Could football supporters bring any other claims?

Although it's not being argued in this case, some football supporters could potentially claim that they have been discriminated against or harassed because of another protected characteristic, such as:

  • Religious belief (even if the individual doesn't themselves hold that religious belief) as some football clubs, such as Rangers and Celtic, are associated with certain religions; and
  • Race, where the individual supports a particular national team.

An employee with at least two years' service could bring an unfair dismissal claim if their employment was terminated because of their allegiance with a football club, rather than one of the potentially fair reasons for dismissal.

More information

We will update this blog when the tribunal has decided Mr McClung's claim. If the judge rules in his favour and finds that supporting Rangers does amount to a protected philosophical belief, there will be another hearing to determine whether or not he was discriminated against for having that belief.