When the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003 were first introduced, employees were protected from discrimination by reason of any ‘religion, religious belief or similar philosophical belief’. The wording was changed in 2007, with the word ‘similar’ being removed so that the Regulations covered ‘any religion, religious or philosophical belief’. That wording was retained in the Equality Act 2010, which replaced the 2003 Regulations in October 2010.
There have been various cases looking at what does and what does not constitute a ‘philosophical belief’ for the purposes of the Act, the decision in each case depending on the individual facts.
In a landmark case, back in 2010, of Granger plc v Nicholson, which dealt with an individual’s beliefs about climate change, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) identified the criteria which must be satisfied in order for an ‘asserted belief’ to qualify for protection. These are that it must:
- Be genuinely held
- Be a belief and not an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available
- Be a belief about 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, not be incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others
In the recent case of Harron v Chief Constable of Dorset Police, the question is whether or not a genuinely held conviction – that wasting public money is wrong – constitutes a philosophical belief that qualifies for protection under the Act, in the context of a police force worker who claimed that he had been persecuted for his commitment to thrift.
Mr Harron has argued that his determination to ensure value for taxpayers’ money was a philosophical belief worthy of protection under the Act and complained to an Employment Tribunal that his employer had discriminated against him for holding that belief.
The Employment Tribunal dismissed Mr Harron’s claim. Having applied the five-step test, it accepted his assertion that he was genuinely motivated by a desire to save money in the public sector and that such a belief was worthy of respect in a democratic society. However, the Employment Tribunal rejected criteria two, three and four.
In its view, Mr Harron’s belief was parochial in nature and entirely confined to his workplace. It was a long way from the kind of religious or philosophical conviction that is afforded protection under the Act.
In allowing Mr Harron’s appeal, however, the EAT criticised the approach taken by the Employment Tribunal in applying the third and fourth criteria and found that it had given insufficient reasons for its decision. The EAT acknowledged that, in order to qualify for protection, a belief must relate to matters more than merely trivial, but warned of the danger of setting the threshold requirement at too high a level. The Employment Tribunal had not erred in law in excluding a belief that operated merely in the workplace.
Where a belief has too narrow a focus, it may not meet the required threshold. It had, however, been open to the Employment Tribunal to find that Mr Harron’s belief, although narrow, was philosophical in nature and it was possible that, in this case, the bar had been set too high.
The issue has now been returned to the same Employment Tribunal for reconsideration.
Lara Murray, an employment law expert with Palmers, said: "This case has yet to determine whether "a profound belief in the proper and efficient use of public money in the public sector" will be protected as a philosophical belief.
“However, it is interesting to note that EAT’s judgment, for the purpose of the Equality Act 2010, underlines that ‘belief’ should not to be restrictively construed.”
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