What beliefs are protected under the Religion or Belief Regulations?

May 21, 2009

The Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations were amended in 2007 to prohibit direct and indirect discrimination, harassment and victimisation on the grounds of any religion or belief. “Belief” in this context means any religious or philosophical belief. Before 2007, only those individuals holding philosophical beliefs “similar” to religious beliefs were protected. Despite the Government confirming that this change in wording was not intended to widen the protection of the regulations, a recent tribunal decision, in which an employment judge held that a belief in climate change is capable of amounting to a “belief” under the regulations, indicates the breadth of this new definition. This article discusses the meaning of “religion or belief” under the regulations and considers this recent tribunal decision.

‘Religion’?

The definition of “religion” and “religious belief” under the regulations is broad. With regard to “religion”, the only limitation is that there must be a clear structure and belief system in place. The Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform’s (BERR’s) Explanatory Guide to the Regulations confirms that the term “religion” includes the major world religions, for example Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Rastafarianism, Baha’ism, Zoroastrianism and Jainism. Also protected are Druidism, the Church of Scientology and the Divine Light Zentrum.

Branches of religions are also protected, for example Protestants and Catholics within the Christian Church. In addition, following amendment to the regulations in 2007, any reference to “religion or belief” also includes a lack of religion or belief.

‘Belief’?

The most difficult aspect of the regulations has been interpreting what amounts to a “belief”. The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that a belief must be more than merely an opinion or idea. It must attain a level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance, must be worthy of respect in a democratic society and must not be incompatible with human dignity.

The BERR guidance states that “religious belief” could include a belief founded in a religion and may be more than simple adherence to a religion or its central articles of faith.

However, “philosophical belief” is harder to define. Examples of beliefs that have been held to be capable of amounting to a “philosophical belief” include pacifism, humanism and atheism. Under the old definition of “philosophical belief”, which required similarity to a religious belief, political beliefs and national loyalty were excluded.

Employment tribunal decision

A recent case decided in the employment tribunal provides a good example of how the definition of “belief” has broadened. An employment judge held that a claimant’s belief about climate change and the environment could amount to a “belief” under the regulations. The claimant argued that his belief was more than an opinion and affected his decisions about housing, travel, diet, purchases, disposal of waste and hopes and fears. In short, his belief affected every area of his life. The tribunal recognised this and held that despite the claimant’s belief being based solely on empirical evidence, it was capable of protection.

This case was distinguished from an earlier Employment Appeals Tribunal decision in which views relating to adoption by same-sex couples were held not to meet the definition of a “belief” because they amounted only to a view or opinion. Although this case is not binding on other employment tribunals, it will be interesting to see if it is applied or expanded upon in future cases.

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