Can an employee be discriminated against for a philosophical belief when that employee is the only person to hold that belief?
In a recent case decided by the Employment Appeal Tribunal (Gray v Mulberry Company (Design) Ltd ) the issue of philosophical beliefs was considered in a situation where the employee held a belief which only they held.
Under the Equality Act 2010, philosophical belief, as well as religious beliefs are protected. Meaning that an employee who holds a philosophical belief is free to practice their belief free from discrimination.
In an earlier case the Employment Appeal Tribunal has previously defined that a philosophical belief must:
1. be genuinely held;
2. be a belief and not an opinion or viewpoint, based on the present state of information available;
3. be a belief as to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour;
4. attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance;
5. be worthy of respect in a democratic society, compatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others.
Beliefs which have previously been held to constitute a philosophical belief are those such as atheism and humanism. These are relatively widespread and therefore common in the workplace.
Employers have a duty to ensure that their employees are not discriminated against because of their religious or philosophical beliefs.
Employees are equally protected from discrimination because they are not part of a religion or belief system.
The employee in this case, Ms Gray, worked for Mulberry as a Market Support Assistant and refused to sign a standard clause in her employment contract giving the copyright of her work to her employer. Ms Gray was also a writer and film-maker and was writing a novel and screenplay. She feared that it would give her employer ownership over it, despite the contract being amended to exclude them. Eventually she was dismissed for her refusal to sign the contract terms.
Ms Gray argued that it was a philosophical belief of hers in the sanctity of copyright law and that she had been indirectly discriminated against, through dismissal, due to this belief being a protected characteristic.
The Employment Appeal Tribunal decided that the belief did not meet all the necessary criteria to qualify under the Equality Act.
The Appeal Tribunal also went on to consider the case as it would have been decided, had their decision on this point been wrong (i.e. it did meet the requirements of the Equality Act), and stated that the employee would be the only person to hold such a belief – she was not part of any group; therefore, it was correct that her claim for indirect discrimination should fail.
Permission has however been granted to appeal to the Court of Appeal in this case, and therefore it may not be the end of the story!
Points to note
This is an interesting area of developing law and the range of topics considered to be philosophical beliefs have potential to be broadened by the Courts and Tribunal.
As an employer you should be aware that the concept of “belief” under the Equality Act does extend beyond religious beliefs. For example, a belief in man-made climate change has been held to be a belief under the Act.
Action to take
1. Ensure all managers are aware of the protection that philosophical beliefs are given under the Equality Act and the meaning of these.
2. Ensure that all managers and senior staff have an awareness of the principles of the Equality Act as they apply in the workplace.
3. Seek advice if you are unsure or are making decision which could conflict with an employees rights under the Equality Act.
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