What is a philosophical belief?
The Equality Act prohibits discrimination because of religion or belief. “Belief” means any religious or philosophical belief. Indirect discrimination occurs where an employer applies a provision, criterion or practice (PCP) to employees; the PCP puts employees who share a belief at a disadvantage when compared with persons who do not share that belief (group disadvantage); an individual is put at that disadvantage; and the employer cannot show justification.
Ms G was employed by a design company producing luxury goods. She had access to some of the employer’s designs ahead of their launch to market. She was asked to sign a copyright agreement as a condition of her continued employment, which would give the employer rights in respect of works created by her. She refused to sign, on the basis that it interfered with her own work as a writer and film-maker. She believed that the agreement could extend to her artistic activities away from work.
The employer amended the agreement to make clear that only work which related to their business would be covered. Ms G continued to refuse to sign the agreement and she was dismissed with notice. The reason given for the dismissal was a refusal to comply with her conditions of employment through her refusal to sign the copyright agreement. She did not say at any time during her employment that she had a philosophical belief in protecting the ownership of her artistic creations.
Ms G issued a claim for discrimination on the grounds of belief. She argued that her belief in “the statutory human or moral right to own the copyright and moral rights of her own creative works and output” amounted to a philosophical belief under the Equality Act.
The Employment Tribunal held that Ms G genuinely held the belief, that it was a belief rather than an opinion and that it concerned a weighty and substantial aspect of human behaviour. However, the Tribunal did not accept that she held the belief as any sort of “philosophical touchstone to her life” and found that the belief was not sufficiently cohesive to form any cogent philosophical belief system. Therefore, it was not a philosophical belief that was capable of protection under the Equality Act.
The Tribunal went on to find that the dismissal was due to Ms G’s failure to sign the agreement and not because of her philosophical beliefs, which the employer did not know about. On the issue of indirect discrimination, the PCP – the requirement to sign the copyright agreement – was not shown to have put other persons sharing her belief at a particular disadvantage. The claims therefore failed.
The Employment Appeal Tribunal agreed that the belief was not a philosophical belief. It also found that Ms G had not at any stage made her belief known to the employer. In fact, she had stated that her refusal to sign was her concern that the employer would obtain rights over her private creative input. As for indirect discrimination, the EAT noted that the purpose of indirect discrimination provisions is to eliminate unjustified group discrimination. There was no evidence of any other person sharing Ms G’s belief or that others sharing the belief that Ms G held had been put to a disadvantage. Her claim could therefore not succeed.
In this case, the employee tried to rely on a particular belief after the dismissal – she had not discussed it with her employer during her employment. However, employers should be alert to developments in case law regarding what amounts to a “belief” and therefore qualifies for protection under the Equality Act. Whilst they all depend on their own facts, case law has given us examples of beliefs that are capable of being protected, which include: a belief in climate change; an anti-fox hunting belief; a profound belief in the proper and efficient use of public money in the public sector; a belief that lying is always wrong; and a belief that mediums can contact the dead.
08 October 2018
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