Environmentalism meets religion and belief criteria

The Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) has decided that an individual’s belief that mankind is headed towards catastrophic climate change is capable of being a philosophical belief for the purposes of the Religion or Belief Regulations 2003.

Tim Nicholson was employed as the head of sustainability at Grainger, a property management company. When he was made redundant in July 2008, he claimed that he was dismissed because of his strongly-held beliefs about climate change, and that those beliefs were protected under the regulations, so the dismissal was unlawful discrimination.

The regulations prohibit discrimination on grounds of religion or belief. Belief is defined as “any religious or philosophical belief”, but beyond that, there is little guidance as to what will qualify as a philosophical belief. The question in this case was whether Nicholson’s belief in climate change disaster could amount to a belief protected under the regulations.

At a pre-hearing review earlier this year, a tribunal decided that Nicholson’s beliefs were protected by the regulations. Grainger appealed.

At the EAT, Nicholson was asked to articulate his belief. He described it as: “Mankind is heading towards catastrophic climate change and therefore we are all under a moral duty to lead our lives in a manner which mitigates or avoids this catastrophe for the benefit of future generations, and to persuade others to do the same.”

The EAT said there were certain basic conditions for a belief to attract the protection of the regulations. Those are that the belief must: be genuinely held; be a belief and not an opinion or viewpoint; be a belief as to a weighty aspect of human life and behaviour; attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance; and must be worthy of respect in a democratic society.

Grainger argued that a belief in climate change was not sufficient for these purposes and that protection should only extend to a belief based on a philosophy of life, and not a scientific or political belief or opinion, or lifestyle choice. The EAT disagreed, saying that, just because a philosophical belief is based on science, there is no reason to disqualify it from protection. Equally, a belief in political philosophies such as Socialism, Marxism, Communism or Capitalism may qualify.

The EAT concluded that Nicholson’s belief met the basic conditions necessary and was therefore capable of being a protected belief, but sent the case back to the tribunal to decide if Nicholson’s belief was genuinely held.

In a related development, it has been reported that police trainer Alan Power is pursuing a claim under the regulations against the Greater Manchester Police. He alleges that he was dismissed because of his belief that psychics can be useful in criminal investigations. According to reports, a tribunal held that Power’s belief in psychics is capable of protection under the regulations, and that finding was upheld by the EAT (although the judgment is not yet available).

Key points

  • Discrimination on the grounds of any religious or philosophical belief is protected under the regulations.
  • For a belief to qualify for protection, it must be genuinely held, relate to a weighty aspect of human life, attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance, and be worthy of respect.
  • Establishing that a belief is protected under the regulations is only the first step to a successful claim; a claimant must go on to show that they were discriminated against on grounds of that belief. Nicholson has yet to show that his belief was genuine, or that his dismissal was because of that belief.

What you should do

  • Ensure that diversity and equality policies cover philosophical, as well as religious beliefs.
  • Train managers to act with caution when dealing with employees who hold strong beliefs. Any less favourable treatment on the grounds of the belief could be unlawful discrimination.

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