Philosophical belief under the Equality Act

Under the Equality Act it is unlawful to discriminate, harass or victimise workers or job applicants on the grounds of their religion, religious belief or philosophical belief. “Religion or belief” is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act, just like for example age or race, and is defined as follows:

  • “Religion” means any religion, and a reference to religion includes a reference to a lack of religion.
  • “Belief” means any religious or philosophical belief and a reference to belief includes a reference to a lack of belief.

When assessing a case of discrimination on these grounds, it is sometimes not clear whether the particular beliefs will be protected. Case law gives us some guidance and each case must be assessed on its own facts.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) Guide to religion or belief states “an employer should only question a belief in the most exceptional circumstances where, for example, it is very obscure, appears to be objectively unreasonable, or the sincerity of the belief of an employee is genuinely in doubt”. Employers, therefore, should not be too quick to judge.

Philosophical belief?

Although most people may feel confident in identifying a religious belief,  a philosophical belief can be more difficult to identify.

The Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) has given some guidance on the definition of philosophical beliefs including the following:

  • The belief must be genuinely held.
  • It must be a belief, not an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available
  • It must be worthy of respect in a democratic society, not be incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others.
  • While “support of a political party” does not of itself amount to a philosophical belief, a belief in a political philosophy or doctrine, such as Socialism, Marxism or free-market Capitalism, might qualify.
  • A philosophical belief may be based on science. e.g.  Darwinism.

The EAT also said that a belief in climate change was potentially capable of amounting to a philosophical belief.

So what about political beliefs? Although the government has previously commented that scientific or political views are not the same as religious or philosophical beliefs, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has held that UK law must be changed in order to provide specific protection against dismissal on grounds of political opinion or affiliation. Therefore, there is uncertainty on whether a political belief would gain protection under the Equality Act.

As the examples show below, there is a wide variety of beliefs that could be, and have been argued to be, philosophical beliefs – each case turns on its own facts.

In the case of Lisk v Shield Guardian Co Ltd an employment tribunal held that a belief that people should pay their respects by wearing a poppy from All Souls’ Day on 2 November to Remembrance Sunday was not a philosophical belief capable of protection.

In Farrell v South Yorkshire Police Authority, an employment tribunal held that an employee’s beliefs that the 9/11 and 7/7 attacks were “false flag operations” authorised by the US and UK governments, and that the media is controlled by a global elite seeking a new world order, were not philosophical beliefs for discrimination purposes.

More recently in Gray v Mulberry Company (Design) Ltd the EAT upheld an employment tribunal’s decision that an employee’s belief that she was entitled to own the copyright and moral rights of her own creative output was not a philosophical belief under the Equality Act.

If you require any advice on this topic or any other employment law matter, please contact Linda Wilson.