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Myth buster – philosophical belief (religion / belief discrimination)

Acas recently published new guidance on religion and belief to help employers prevent discrimination on these grounds in the workplace. To assist employers further, here’s a “myth buster” to help separate fact from fiction in this area.

Myth:

I can count any belief I hold as a philosophical belief and therefore a protected characteristic.

Fact:

Under the Equality Act 2010, it is unlawful to treat a person less favourably on the grounds of their religion or their religious or philosophical belief, but the question here is what would qualify as “philosophical belief” under the legislation? Unfortunately the answer to that question is neither easy nor clearly defined.

Originally the law stated that, to be covered, a philosophical belief had to be ‘similar’ to a religious belief, but that requirement was removed. Whilst this amendment widened the range of beliefs that would be protected, there is still no precise definition of what is covered.

The Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) set out some guidance on the matter stating that in order to fall under the protection of the provision:

  • the belief must be genuinely held
  • it must be a belief rather than an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available
  • it must be a belief as to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour
  • it must attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importanceand
  • it must be worthy of respect in a democratic society, not incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others.

 The Explanatory Note of the Equality Act 2010 adds that:

  •  any cult involved in illegal activities would not satisfy these criteria
  • beliefs such as humanism and atheism would be beliefs for the purposes of this provision
  • adherence to a particular football team would not be.

One area that poses particular difficulty, especially in today’s climate, is to what extent political beliefs may be protected. Whilst support of a specific particular party was historically unlikely to amount to a philosophical belief, a political doctrine or philosophy such as Socialism, Capitalism or Conservatism (to name but a few) may well attract the protection of the legislation.

So, it would not be surprising to see tribunals adopt an increasingly liberal interpretation of ‘philosophical belief’ in order to protect political beliefs and potentially also membership of a political party.

This article was written and contributed by Cheryl Moolenschot, Employee Management Limited

DISCLAIMER: This article should not be regarded as constituting legal advice in relation to particular circumstances, and is merely a general comment on the relevant topic. If specific advice is required in connection with any of the matters covered in this article, please speak to Employee Management Limited directly.

Published on 12th June 2018

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