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Equality Protection for Philosophical Beliefs

The law on discrimination against religious belief is well known but did you know that certain philosophical beliefs have the same protection? Find out what they are and how to determine their status in our article.


Section 10 of the Equality Act 2010 makes harassment, victimisation and direct or indirect discrimination against a person based on their religion or belief unlawful.


There have been several recent cases where people who have been discriminated against on the grounds of their religious beliefs have tested the law as it refers to them. However, Section 10 also mentions philosophical belief and this has proved rather harder to define.


The landmark case for deciding the eligibility of a philosophical belief for protection under the Equality Act is Grainger plc v Nicholson (2009). In this case, the claimant had a belief in man-made climate change and this meant that when he was asked to return to head office to collect a forgotten phone, his objection to unnecessary air flights meant that he felt duty-bound to refuse. He was made redundant soon afterwards. He claimed that this was discrimination on the basis of his beliefs as other employees, who did not share his beliefs, were not made redundant. Although his employer claimed that the claimant had used scientific evidence to form an opinion (and thereby invalidated his view from the definition of philosophical belief), he was able to show that his belief did in fact inform his entire life, since he had adopted carbon neutral measures in several areas including vehicular travel and house design.


In its judgment on the case, the Employment Appeal Tribunal helpfully laid out five tests that should be applied to any belief to determine whether it could be counted as a philosophical belief for the purposes of equality legislation:


(i) The belief must be genuinely held.

(ii) It must be a belief and not an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available.

(iii) It must be a belief as to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour.

(iv) It must attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance.

(v) It must be worthy of respect in a democratic society, be not incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others

These five conditions were later incorporated into Section 52 of the Guidance Notes for the Equality Act 2010.

A recent case has raised again this issue; in GMB v Henderson (2015), the claimant said that he had been the victim of “direct discrimination and harassment on the basis of his ‘left-wing democratic socialist beliefs’”. Whilst the Employment Appeal Tribunal found that the alleged discrimination had not in fact occurred, it did confirm that Mr Henderson’s political beliefs were a protected belief for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010.


Implications


The Henderson case reinforces the guidance laid down in Grainger plc v Nicholson and shows employers what they should look out for when allegations are being made of discrimination on the grounds of a philosophical belief. Suggestions that such beliefs are less worthy of protection under the law than religious beliefs were firmly rejected by the Employment Appeal Tribunal. However, mere support for a political party will not qualify for protection.


The five tests, as laid down in Grainger plc v Nicholson will continue to be used as a yardstick by which all claims of discrimination on the grounds of philosophical belief will be judged.


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