Background

The Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003 prohibit discrimination in the workplace on the grounds of any “religion, religious belief, or philosophical belief". An interesting recent case has received significant attention as it suggests Tribunals may approach the question of “philosophical belief” more broadly than they have previously.

The Facts

An Employment Tribunal has held at a very early stage (Pre-Hearing Review) in a case involving a challenge to a redundancy dismissal that an employee’s “settled views” about carbon emissions and climate change are capable of amounting to a “belief” (Nicholson v Grainger PLC and others ET 2203367/08). The employee describes his belief as follows:

“I have a strongly held philosophical belief about climate change and the environment. I believe we must urgently cut carbon emissions to avoid catastrophic climate change. It is not merely an opinion but a philosophical belief which affects how I live my life including my choice of home, how I travel, what I buy, what I eat and drink, what I do with my waste and my hopes and my fears.”

The employee argues that he was dismissed not for redundancy but because the company’s directors disapproved of his “belief”. In deciding not to strike his case out and allowing a “religion or belief” case to be advanced on this basis, the Employment Tribunal looked at case law which states that the test for a protected “philosophical belief” is whether the belief has “sufficient cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance and [is] worthy of respect in a democratic society”.

The Decision

The Employment Judge in this case concluded that:

“...it is difficult to argue that the beliefs around the impact of climate change lack cogency, seriousness, cohesion or importance. Indeed, they command the highest respect in democratic society as can be seen from the conduct of modern global politics.”

The President of the EAT has previously explained that, “…to constitute a belief there must be a religious or philosophical viewpoint in which one actually believes; it is not enough ‘to have an opinion based on some real or perceived logic or based on information or lack of information available.’”

The Employment Judge in this case was influenced by his finding that the Claimant has “settled views” about climate change and “acts upon those views in the way in which he leads his life”. The Employment Judge concluded, “in my judgment, his belief goes beyond a mere opinion, such as might be held on some aspect of climate change such as whether it is environmentally desirable to travel by air”.

What this means for employers

If other Tribunals adopted a similar approach, employers would have real difficulties monitoring, avoiding and preventing discrimination on grounds of religion or belief. However, the Employment Judge in this case was keen to guard against this conclusion and suggested that the facts in this case were unusual and unlikely to be repeated often. He went on to observe that “a decision in favour of this Claimant should not be seen as the thin end of a wedge of similarly based complaints”.

It remains to be seen whether the employee can sustain his complaint of discrimination at the full Tribunal Hearing by showing that his belief did result in his dismissal. In the meantime, we may continue to see a variety of non-religious beliefs advanced as protected.