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EAT "opens the floodgates" on philosophical belief

10 November 2009

Communism, free-market capitalism, vegetarianism, pacifism and Darwinism – all are “philosophical beliefs” and entitled to the same protection in the workplace as religion, the EAT has ruled.

Giving judgment in the case of Tim Nicholson, a surveyor with strong views about climate change, Mr Justice Burton said that beliefs did not even have to amount to an “-ism” to be protected from discrimination.

He said that although support of a political party might not meet the description of a philosophical belief, this did not mean that belief in a political philosophy or doctrine did not qualify.

Giving judgment in Grainger plc v Nicholson (UKEAT/0219/07/ZT), Burton J said: “There is nothing to my mind in the make-up of a philosophical belief – particularly against the background of the ECHR referred to above – which would disqualify a belief based on a political philosophy.

“The belief asserted by the respondent in this case, by reference to alleged philosophical belief in anthropogenic climate change, if established, is likely to be characterised as a political belief.”

Burton J said that there was also reason to disqualify “a philosophical belief which is based on science as opposed, for example, to religion”, such as Darwinism.

Nicholson was dismissed from his post as head of sustainability at property investment company Grainger plc last year. The company claimed he had been made redundant for operational reasons at a time of “extraordinary market turbulence”.

Nicholson claimed he was unfairly dismissed because of his beliefs, which amounted to philosophical beliefs under the Employment Equality (Religion and Belief) Regulations 2003.

Mr Justice Burton ruled that “a belief in man-made climate change, and the alleged resulting moral imperatives, is capable, if genuinely held” of being a philosophical belief covered by the regulations.

Phil Allen, employment partner at Mace & Jones, said the ruling “opened the floodgates” and left employers in a very difficult situation.

This extends an avenue of sensible discrimination law to a position where we can’t identify how far it goes,” he said.

“I am concerned by how this could be used by people with extremist views. It is almost impossible for employers to decide whether people’s views fall into the category of being worthy of respect in a democratic society.

“Employers should tread carefully when dealing with any worker who has expressed a strong view.”

Robert Riley, partner at Addleshaw Goddard in Leeds, said the ruling was a “worrying development”.

He went on: “It will be interesting to see whether this remains as it stands, or whether the Court of Appeal or the Supreme Court try and rein it back in.

“Society will need to stop and decide, either through the courts or through legislation, what actually is to be meant by religion.”

Shah Qureshi, head of employment at Bindmans, acted for Nicholson.

“Tim Nicholson believes his views are sufficiently cogent, serious and important to receive protection under the regulations,” he said. “Vast numbers of people are now living their lives in accordance with their views on climate change and the environment.

“These are often deeply held views based on the premise that without change humanity will suffer.”

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