Religious and philosophical belief

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Cases about religious and philosophical beliefs have been in the headlines recently. The aim of this brief guide is to give you more of an understanding of this complex area of law.

Philosophical belief
Under the Equality Act 2010 religious and certain philosophical beliefs are protected.
To be classified as a philosophical belief worthy of protection a belief must:
• Be genuinely held
• Be a belief and not a mere opinion
• Be about a weighty and substantial part of human life
• Have a certain level of cogency, importance and seriousness
• It must be worthy of respect and compatible with human dignity and the fundamental rights of others

The following are some of the beliefs that have been found to be protected under the Equality Act: Belief in climate change; anti-fox hunting; public service broadcasting; lying is wrong and spiritualism.

Similarly, beliefs that were not protected have included: That poppies should be worn and membership of BNP, Nazism or fascism.

Indirect discrimination can occur where an apparently neutral practice (which cannot be justified), disproportionately affects people with a particular ‘protected characteristic’, such as a religious or philosophical belief.

The following have been found to be discriminatory:  Dismissing Catholic employee for refusing to work Sundays without trying to accommodate his request and refusing a Jewish worker one day’s holiday for Yom Kippur.  However disciplining a Christian who inappropriately proselytising or foisting her beliefs on others, not allowing a Muslim teacher to wear a veil and banning Sikh prison officers from wearing wear a kirpan in prison have all been found to be non-discriminatory.

All of the above decisions were based on their particular facts so it is sensible to seek legal advice before taking any action. Generally speaking the more an employer has tried to accommodate a request the less likely it is that a subsequent refusal will be discriminatory. Employers facing such requests should consider any health and safety implications, possible impact on other staff and the effect that accommodating the request would have on their business before reaching a decision.