Tribunal accepts environmentalism as a ‘belief’– Case of the week: Nicholson v Grainger

T W Nicholson v Grainger Plc and others

FACTS The Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003 prohibit discrimination in the workplace by reason of any religion or belief. The regulations were amended in 2007, so that “belief” now means “any religious or philosophical belief”.

Tim Nicholson, who had been head of sustainability, was made redundant by Grainger Plc and brought a number of claims, including unfair dismissal and discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief.

The discrimination claim was on the grounds that Nicholson had “a strongly held philosophical belief about climate change and the environment”.

He argued that his beliefs were “not merely an opinion, but a philosophical belief which affects how I live my life including my choice of home, how I travel, what I buy, what I eat and drink, what I do with my waste and my hopes and my fears.” A pre-hearing review was held to consider various issues, including whether Nicholson’s beliefs were protected.

DECISION The employment judge held that Nicholson’s beliefs about climate change and the environment were capable of being a belief for the purposes of the regulations, taking into account the case of McClintock, where the EAT held that the test for determining whether beliefs can properly be considered to fall into the category of a philosophical belief is whether they have “sufficient cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance and are worthy of respect in a democratic society.”

The employment judge held it was difficult to argue that beliefs around the impact of climate change did not fall within this definition and Nicholson’s beliefs gave rise to the sort of moral order derived from most religions.

It was also held that the case could be distinguished from McClintock (where the EAT held that a view relating to adoption by same-sex couples did not fall within the definition) asNicholson’s views went beyond a mere opinion as they affected the way he led his life.

IMPLICATIONS This is the first reported case where a claimant has successfully argued a belief not similar to a religious belief may be protected under the regulations. Previously, tribunals have tended to take a narrow interpretation of what could amount to a belief.

For example, patriotism and loyalty to a flag or support for the British National Party were found not to fall within the definition, although both these cases were made before the definition was amended. While not binding on other tribunals, this case does suggest a broader approach.

Based on this view, strong opinions on vegetarianism or sexual abstinence or those of survivalists would arguably be capable of constituting a “belief”.

However, as the employment judge noted, claimants may often find it difficult to establish that the reason for their treatment was on the grounds of their belief, so it is unlikely there will be a deluge of these types of claims.

Vanessa Hempstead, solicitor, Thomas Eggar

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