Employment, religion or belief, the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the Daily Mail

In February we posted a note on the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s guidance arising out of the ECtHR judgment in Eweida and Others v United Kingdom [2013] ECHR 37:

We concluded with a reminder that individual employment cases are fact-specific – which is why Nadia Eweida won against BA plc while Shirley Chaplin lost against her NHS Trust – and that though employers should certainly read the guidance they should not assume that in case of a dispute an Employment Tribunal will automatically side with the employer.

The EHRC guidance was finally picked up by the Daily Mail, which reported it on 7 April under the headline What an insult to Christians! and complained that “Druids, vegans and green activists should be given special treatment at work, according to ‘lunatic’ advice from the equalities watchdog”:

“This could include giving believers time off to go on pilgrimages, such as druids and pagans going to Stonehenge, while environmentalists should be free to lecture other staff about their car use … Even atheists should have their beliefs respected, according to the new guidance. It has been issued in the wake of the landmark European Court of Human Rights ruling that Christians may wear a cross at work. But rather than focusing on Christian rights in the workplace – which it insists are still strictly limited – the controversial quango suggests employers should give equal respect to fringe and non-religious groups. The guidance is likely to be seen as an insult by some Christians and other religious observers as it appears to put lifestyle choices like vegetarianism on a par with their deeply-held spiritual beliefs”.

Gosh: respecting the beliefs of atheists: whatever is the world coming to? What the guidance actually says is this:

“A protected belief should be more than an opinion or a viewpoint, and it should be serious, genuinely and sincerely held, and worthy of respect in a democratic society. It should also be compatible with human dignity and should not conflict with the fundamental rights of others. The law protects adherents to all the generally recognised religions, as well as druids and pagans, for example. It also protects people without any religion or belief, including humanists and atheists”

– a statement that seems in line with current case law both at Strasbourg and domestically.

As to environmentalists being “free to lecture other staff about their car use”, all the guidance does is to suggest that where one employee tells another that, based on her deeply-held ecological beliefs, she believes it wrong and irresponsible to drive to work, her behaviour comes within the acceptable range of “reasonable expression of a philosophical belief in the workplace”.

The EHRC’s guidance is by no means perfect; but the piece in the Mail is a spectacular overreaction to an honest attempt to grapple with a difficult subject. What the Mail seems to find particularly offensive is that the guidance offers no special treatment for Christians because they are Christians: instead, the guidance is about belief and makes no distinction between different varieties of belief. It assumes that, in order to be accommodated, so long as the belief in question meets the test in Campbell and Cosans v United Kingdom [1982] ECHR 1 of achieving “a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance” no further inquiry is necessary.

But how could it be otherwise? There are wide varieties of belief even as between Christians (and, it should be said, even as between Christians ostensibly within the same Church: whatever their degree of agreement on women in the Anglican episcopate, Forward in Faith and Reform would agree on very little else). From a Quaker perspective certain doctrines espoused by some of the mainstream Churches seem positively exotic – but whatever one’s views on the veracity or otherwise of a particular piece of doctrine, one cannot impugn the bona fides of those who hold to it merely on account of one’s own disbelief. Similarly, does anyone doubt the seriousness of Richard Dawkins’s atheism – whatever one’s reservations about his prose style?

Note to the Mail: for a doctrine to be “cogent, serious, cohesive and important” it does not have to be verifiable: all that seems to be required is that it should not be completely loony. And if the Mail’s objection to druids and pagans is that they dress up in funny clothes (or in some cases don’t dress in anything at all), did anyone from Northcliffe House watch the enthronement of the Archbishop of Canterbury?

PS: The Telegraph carries a perfectly sensible report on the guidance.

2 thoughts on “Employment, religion or belief, the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the Daily Mail

  1. What theistic religions do have in common is that they are equally loony and for the same reason. How one can seek legally to distinguish between one and another is frankly baffling and certainly beyond the law. Though I note some countries have lists of what are “religions” excluding any not on that state list.

    What this has to do with non-theistic “beliefs”, I have no idea. How do any of these differ from political beliefs or indeed are “sincere” sexism, racism or homophobia protected just because they are sincere?

    • Who knows? The whole issue of what constitutes a “belief” is extraordinarily difficult and seems to depend on the view that the court or tribunal takes in the instant case. Perhaps the oddest recent example is Maistry v BBC [2011] ET 1313142/2010, in which it was held that belief in the higher purpose of public service broadcasting was a “philosophical belief” protected by discrimination law: “In Reith We Trust”…

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