Last reviewed 20 September 2018
Kathy Daniels, employment law author and associate professor, looks at the issues surrounding religion/belief discrimination.
The Equality Act 2010 makes it unlawful to discriminate on nine grounds. One of these grounds (referred to in the law as “protected characteristics”) is religion/belief. An individual must not be treated less favourably or suffer harassment because of their religion/belief or their lack of religion/belief. In addition, if a requirement is put in place that is more difficult for a group of a particular religion/belief to comply with, it is to the detriment of an individual and it cannot be justified, this will be indirect discrimination.
This is relatively straightforward when applied to religion. It is unlikely that there would be much argument about Christianity, Sikhism, Hinduism, etc being a religion. However, the definition of a belief can be more complicated.
In the Equality Act 2010 a “belief” means any religious or philosophical belief. It must be a weighty and substantial aspect of human life, be worthy of respect in a democratic society and must not conflict the fundamental rights of others.
Although this does give us some guidance on what might and might not be a belief, it is also a definition that is very open to interpretation. This was demonstrated by the recent case of Gray v Mulberry Company (Design) Ltd 2018.
In this case the employee was asked to sign a standard copyright clause as part of her contract of employment. However, she was writing a novel and a screenplay, and was worried that they would be covered by this clause and therefore she refused to sign it. Eventually she was dismissed. She argued that this was discrimination on the grounds of her belief in the sanctity of copyright law.
The Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) ruled that this was not a belief as defined in the Equality Act 2010. It lacked sufficient logic and lucidity. In addition, it noted that this was not a belief of a group of people, and therefore it could not be claimed that the requirement to sign the clause was indirect discrimination, because no group suffered a detriment.
So, if this was not a belief what has been found to be a belief?
Examples of beliefs are the following.
A belief in the importance of environmental issues. In Grainger plc v Nicholson 2010, an employee argued that he had been selected for redundancy because of his strong beliefs in the importance of taking action to protect the environment. Due to his beliefs he would not use aeroplanes, did not drive a car, had many ecological features in his house and recycled widely. This was found to be a protected belief.
A belief in animal rights. In Hashman v Orchard Park Garden Centre 2011, an employee operated as a hunt saboteur. He was made redundant, and argued that the reason was that the owner of the garden centre where he worked was the leader of the local hunt. It was found that a strong belief in animal rights was a protected belief.
A belief in ethical journalism. In Maistry v BBC 2011, the employee was a journalist who refused to cover certain stories or to report some events in a particular way. He was subjected to disciplinary action, but successfully argued that this was discriminatory because a belief in ethical journalism was a protected belief.
It is interesting to contrast these cases with ones where it has been ruled that the issue in question was not a belief.
A belief in the importance of wearing a poppy. In Lisk v Shield Guardian Co and others 2011, the employee was a war veteran and a member of the Royal British Legion. He was told that he could not wear a poppy on his company uniform, and argued that this was discriminatory. A belief in the importance of wearing a poppy was found not to be a protected belief because it was too narrow, and was only relevant at a limited time of the year.
A belief in terrorism conspiracy. In Farrell v South Yorkshire Police Authority 2011,the employee was an analyst for the police and had very particular and largely unsubstantiated views about the potential for terrorism. He was unsuccessful in arguing that his beliefs were protected because there was insufficient logic and sense to his views.
What we see, therefore, is that a range of different issues can be a protected belief. What is important is that the beliefs are an important part of the individual’s life and have a significant impact on the way that they live. Something might be a strong belief for one person, but insignificant to another.
What does this mean for the everyday situations that you face in the workplace?
Be aware that “belief” is defined quite widely. It does not mean that an employee can argue that anything is a protected belief, but you do need to keep an open mind. Do not be too narrow in your thinking, presuming that belief only covers more “traditional” issues such as vegetarianism or veganism.
Intervene if an employees are being teased, harassed or generally being treated in an unacceptable way because of their belief. Although you need to take particular care if there is a possibility of a discrimination claim, you should not let any employee be treated badly in the workplace.
Make sure that belief is not used as a deciding factor in any issues relating to promotion, recruitment, etc.
Encourage a working environment where all beliefs are respected. However, also make it clear to employees that they are at work to do their job. They should not be taking the opportunity to promote their beliefs, they should be focusing on getting their job done.