The phrase ‘philosophical belief’ has appeared frequently in the press recently, for example when an employment tribunal decided that ‘ethical veganism’ could amount to a protected philosophical belief but that vegetarianism did not meet the same threshold. This blog provides an update on this evolving area of discrimination law.

What is a philosophical belief under the Equality Act?

Under the Equality Act 2010, it is unlawful to discriminate against anyone at work because of religion, religious belief, or philosophical belief, or lack of religion or belief. There is no definition of the term ‘philosophical belief’. However, case law has established that to be protected a belief must:

  • be genuinely held (although it doesn’t need to be shared by others);
  • not just be an opinion or a viewpoint;
  • relate to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour
  • attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance;
  • be worthy of respect in a democratic society and not be incompatible with human dignity or conflict with the fundamental rights of others;
  • have a similar status or cogency to a religious belief, but it doesn’t need to allude to a fully-fledged system of thought.

An employee is only protected under the Equality Act if their own subjective belief meets these criteria. Whether a belief does meet the criteria will depend on the facts and whether, and to what extent, the belief affects how that individual lives their life. For example, in the recent case on ethical veganism the claimant’s belief affected not only his diet but his choice of electricity supplier and use of cards or coins instead of plastic notes (read more here).

Even if an individual’s philosophical belief is protected, to bring a successful discrimination claim they will still need to prove that they were in fact discriminated against because of that belief.

It is easy to see why some are grappling with this area of the law. The standards above could capture a variety of philosophical beliefs held by individuals (or groups of individuals).

Protected philosophical beliefs: what have the courts and tribunals decided?

So far, case law has found that the following could amount to protected philosophical beliefs:

  • A strongly-held belief about climate change and the environment;
  • Pacifism, humanism, agnosticism and atheism;
  • A political philosophy (socialism/Marxism);
  • The ‘higher purpose’ of public service broadcasting;
  • Spiritualism, life after death and the ability of mediums to contact the dead;
  • A belief in the sanctity of life, extending to ardent belief in anti-fox hunting; and
  • A profound belief in the proper and efficient use of public money in the public sector

Meanwhile it was found that the following did not meet the necessary criteria to be protected:

  • Support for a political party;
  • British Nationalism, Nazism and fascism;
  • Loyalty to a flag or native country;
  • A belief that people should wear a poppy in early November;
  • The right to own the copyright and moral rights of your own creative works and output (except when produced on behalf of an employer);
  • That there are only two sexes, male or female (irrespective of a person’s stated gender); and
  • Sex is immutable i.e. it is impossible to change sex.

What next? 

It is clear that the political and societal backdrop has influenced the decisions of the courts and tribunals in philosophical belief cases. For example, a claim that ethical veganism amounted to a philosophical belief may not have succeeded in 2010, when the Equality Act was introduced. As a result, further additions to the list of philosophical beliefs protected under the Act should be expected in the years to come.

In the workplace there is a potential risk of religion or belief discrimination when recruiting; implementing a dress code; and considering requests for annual leave and time off work.