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Discrimination on grounds of Religion or Belief


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Issued 16th December 2009

Recently there have been three important employment tribunal cases on discrimination on grounds of religion or belief, particularly where a belief conflicts with an employer’s aim to provide services in a non discriminatory manner. Another employment tribunal case accepted that a philosophical belief should have the same protection as a religious belief.

Religious Discrimination and Sexual Orientation Discrimination

The London Borough of Islington required all registrars to perform civil partnerships as part of its Dignity for All policy. Ms Ladele was employed by the borough as a civil registrar and refused to carry out civil partnerships and claimed Religious Discrimination and unfair dismissal when the borough dismissed her for her refusal to carry out civil partnership ceremonies. Initially the employment tribunal found for Ms Ladele, but this was overturned by the Employment Appeal Tribunal.

The Court of Appeal found that the employee’s refusal to perform civil partnerships was based on her religious views of marriage, which was not a core part of her religion. Her employer was asking her to perform civil partnerships, a purely secular task, as part of her job and her refusal to do so meant she was discriminating against same sex couples, in breach of the borough’s Dignity for All policy. The Court of Appeal upheld the Employment Appeal Tribunal’s decision that the employee was not discriminated against and refused permission to appeal to the Supreme Court.

In a similar case, McFarlane v Relate Avon Ltd, the employer had a clear commitment to providing services in a non discriminatory manner and the employee had signed the employer’s equal opportunities policy. The employee believed that his religion taught that same sex partnerships are sinful and he should do nothing to endorse such activity. He argued he should have the right to withdraw from counselling same sex couples if specifically sexual issues arose. However, his employers argued that this would be unacceptable as it breached their equal opportunities policy. The employment tribunal agreed that employers were justified in requiring their employees to adhere to their equal opportunities policy and to allow a counsellor to refuse to counsel certain couples would internally compromise that policy therefore there was no religious discrimination.

Both cases show that employees are free to hold religious beliefs but employers are entitled to require employees to comply with equality policies where this is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.

Discrimination on grounds of Belief

In Grainger Plc v Nicholson the employment tribunal considered whether a genuine belief in man-made climate change is capable of being a philosophical belief under the 2003 Religion and Belief Regulations. Mr Nicholson had been employed as a head of sustainability at Grainger Plc, who maintained that Mr Nicholson had been made redundant. Mr Nicholson claimed unfair dismissal and discrimination on grounds of belief.

The employment tribunal found that to qualify as a philosophical belief, the employee’s belief in climate change had to meet the following criteria:-

  • The belief must be genuinely held;
  • It must be a belief and not an opinion or viewpoint;
  • It must be a belief as to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour;
  • It must attain a level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance;
  • It must be worthy of respect in a democratic society, be not incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others.

Any belief which included racist, sexist or homophobic beliefs would fail these criteria. However, if an employee who did not believe in climate change was discriminated against by another employee who did believe in climate change, the employee who did not believe in climate change could still make a claim for discrimination on grounds of belief.

The Employment Appeal Tribunal upheld the original employment tribunal finding that the employee had been discriminated against on grounds of belief.

Therefore employers do have to consider employees’ genuinely held philosophical beliefs which meet the five criteria above when looking at grievances or claims for discrimination on grounds of belief. However, if an employer has a commitment to an equal opportunities policy to provide goods or services in a non discriminatory manner, it does not have to accommodate employees who refuse to fully comply on the basis of their beliefs.

If you have been discriminated against on the basis of religion or belief, please contact Ashley Hunt now on 0116 212 1000.

About the Author

Lawson-West specialise in commercial, business and employment law. Our team of dedicated commercial solicitors can help with buying or selling a business, business law and disputes, landlord and tenant issues and commercial property. Our expert employment team can offer practical advice and guidance on all aspects of employment law including redundancy, compromise agreements and dismissal procedures. Visit for more information.

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Article Published/Sorted/Amended on Scopulus 2009-12-17 21:00:24 in Legal Articles

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