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Employment Law

Legal guidance - compliance - software

20 MAY 2016

Religion and belief discrimination - when is a 'belief' protected?

Religion and belief discrimination - when is a 'belief' protected?
Colin Godfrey
Senior Associate, Veale Wasbrough Vizards

The Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) has held that an Employment Tribunal (ET) must reconsider whether it is possible for a profound 'belief in the proper and efficient use of public money in the public sector' to count as a 'philosophical belief' under the Equality Act 2010 (EqA 2010).

What does the law say?

The EqA 2010 prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief. Under section 10, a belief is defined as 'any religious or philosophical belief and a reference to belief includes a reference to a lack of belief'.

Following the case of Grainger PLC and Ors v Nicolson (Grainger) for a belief to fall within the protection afforded by the EqA 2010 it must:

  • be genuinely held;
  • be a belief and not an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available;
  • be a belief as to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behavior;
  • attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance; and
  • be worthy of respect in a democratic society, not be incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others.
The tribunals' decisions

In Harron v Dorset Police, Mr Harron claimed, amongst other things, that he had been treated less favourably because of his belief in the proper and efficient use of public money in the public sector.

The ET considered that this belief did not meet the necessary criteria in Grainger, stating that it was not sufficiently weighty and substantial, and that its cogency, seriousness and cohesion was confined to the workplace rather than human life and behaviour in general.

The EAT has now overturned that decision and remitted it back to the ET for a fresh determination. The EAT stressed that the proper approach to determining whether or not there is a qualifying belief is not only to consider the belief against the criteria in Grainger and the statutory Code of Practice for the EqA 2010, but also to have specific regard to the way in which those criteria are to be applied. In this case it was not enough for the ET to say that certain criteria had not been met without an explanation as to why it reached that conclusion.

Interestingly, the EAT did comment that, where a belief has too narrow a focus, then it may not meet the required standards and that it is open to a tribunal to consider that a belief which operates only in the workplace may be too parochial to be fundamental.

Best practice

What may be considered a 'philosophical belief' under the EqA 2010 remains an area of considerable debate. Employers should be mindful of the criteria in Grainger and the potential for employers to assert protection for a wide range of beliefs.

Although in many cases a belief may not satisfy these criteria, it is advisable to be cautious when employees express genuinely held beliefs and that all staff are clear about the standards expected. In this respect having a clear equal opportunities policy in place, which is widely advertised and made available, is strongly advised.

It is worth stressing that this case does not demonstrate that a belief in the proper and efficient use of public money in the public sector will be considered a 'philosophical belief'. The EAT has simply remitted the matter back to the ET to be re-determined. It is possible that the employment judge will come to the same conclusion, expressing his reasons for doing so more clearly.
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