Equality Act 2010: Which non-religious beliefs are protected?

Author: Stephen Simpson

Ethical veganism, democratic socialism, humanism and a refusal to lie to customers are among the eclectic list of beliefs that have come before courts and tribunals as potential "philosophical beliefs" under equality legislation. We look back at which non-religious beliefs have been found to be protected under the Equality Act 2010.

Religion or belief is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010 and includes "any religious or philosophical belief" (italics added). This means that individuals are protected against direct and indirect discrimination, harassment and victimisation because of their philosophical beliefs in the fields of employment and vocational training.

The leading case Grainger plc v Nicholson [2010] IRLR 4 EAT (see below) sets out a stringent five-stage test before a belief is considered to be a "philosophical belief" under the Equality Act 2010.

It is important to stress that:

  • each of these cases was decided on its own facts and it does not necessarily follow that, because a claimant's belief was accepted or rejected as being protected under discrimination legislation, another individual's similar belief would be treated in the same way by a tribunal; and
  • many of these cases were concerned with whether or not the claimant's belief constitutes a philosophical belief in the first place and whether or not the individual was actually discriminated against because of that belief is a separate issue.

Ethical veganism

Casamitjana v The League Against Cruel Sports ET/3331129/2018

In January 2020, Mr Casamitjana successfully argued before an employment tribunal that his beliefs as an ethical vegan entitled him to protection under the Equality Act 2010.

In Mr Casamitjana's written submissions to the tribunal, he said that he believed that he "should exhaust all reasonable steps to ensure that my consumption contributes as little as possible to the suffering and/or exploitation of sentient beings no matter how remote that is".

Mr Casamitjana highlighted the "sweeping impact" of veganism on his life, covering:

I believe that all animals are genetically and ecologically connected so we should treat them as we want to be treated ourselves and that in essence they are as much "us" as any human from any race or culture. I believe that there is a basic metaphysical principle of ethical veganism in the kinship we share with all animals.

Claimant's written submissions in Casamitjana v The League Against Cruel Sports

  • food, avoiding not just animal products, but also food produced in a way that harms or exploits animals (including honey);
  • clothing, avoiding items of clothing and accessories that contain animal products;
  • products and services, including avoiding financial services that invest in pharmaceutical companies that test on animals;
  • money and transport, preferring to go on foot if he can walk to his destination within an hour and, if public transport is unavoidable, preferring the tube to the bus;
  • relationships, including not dating anyone who is not vegan; and
  • employment, working where he can convey his vegan beliefs.

Although a written ruling is not available, it has been reported that Mr Casamitjana's employer did not oppose the proposition that his ethical veganism is protected under the Equality Act 2010.

The employment tribunal has still to decide whether or not Mr Casamitjana was discriminated against. He was dismissed following an email that he sent to staff encouraging them to change their pension arrangements over what he saw as unethical investments from the employer's pension provider.

In September 2019, the employment tribunal in Conisbee v Crossley Farms Ltd and others ET/3335357/2018 held that the claimant's vegetarianism was not a philosophical belief under the Equality Act 2010.

There is a need for efficient use of money in the public sector

Harron v Chief Constable of Dorset Police [2016] IRLR 481 EAT

In January 2016, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) held that a passionate belief in the efficient use of public money might constitute a philosophical belief under the Equality Act 2010.

Mr Harron, who was employed by Dorset Police, strongly believed in the proper and efficient use of public money in the public sector, and repeatedly attempted to challenge what he saw as wasteful activities within his police force. He claimed that he felt compelled to express his belief, and that he suffered discrimination as a result.

Initially, an employment tribunal held that Mr Harron's belief did not constitute a philosophical belief, being "not so much a belief but a set of values which manifest themselves as an objective or goal principally operating in the workplace".

However, the EAT allowed Mr Harron's appeal, finding that the tribunal had set the bar too high when deciding whether or not his belief was protected. It remitted the issue to the same tribunal for fresh consideration.

Commitment to public service

Anderson v Chesterfield High School ET/2415949/2012

In December 2014, an employment tribunal held that a belief in the importance of public service held by an individual who became the mayor of Liverpool was a philosophical belief under the Equality Act 2010.

Mr Anderson, a social exclusion officer with a school, became the leader of Liverpool City Council and was later elected as the mayor of Liverpool. While he initially performed both his school and political roles on a full-time basis, his employment with the school was later terminated. He brought, among other things, a religion or belief discrimination claim.

The employment tribunal accepted that a political philosophy is not disqualified from the definition of a "philosophical belief". The tribunal was satisfied that Mr Anderson's belief was genuinely held and about a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour. It found Mr Anderson's belief to be logical, convincing and cohesive.

However, the tribunal ultimately rejected Mr Anderson's discrimination claim. It held that an individual who was unavailable to work for the school for a reason not related to public service would have been treated in the same way: such an individual would have had their employment terminated.

Did you know...?

In June 2013, the normal two-year qualifying period was removed for unfair dismissal claims where the alleged reason for dismissal is the employee's political opinions or affiliations. However, such a dismissal may be fair, depending on the circumstances.

Democratic socialism

Olivier v Department for Work and Pensions ET/1701407/2013

In October 2013, an employment tribunal held that a belief in "democratic socialism" held by a dismissed jobcentre worker who has long been politically active with the Labour Party was a philosophical belief under the Equality Act 2010.

Mr Olivier, who worked in a jobcentre, was required to get written permission before taking up any political activity because his work was public facing, and in a politically sensitive area.

Mr Olivier was dismissed for misconduct after his employer found out that he had stood in local elections as a candidate for the Labour Party. In addition, he was dismissed for having a letter published in the local newspaper criticising the Government's tax policy.

In his claims for unfair dismissal and religion or belief discrimination, Mr Olivier argued that his belief in "democratic socialism" constituted a philosophical belief.

At a preliminary hearing, the employment tribunal accepted that his belief in "democratic socialism" can amount to a philosophical belief under the Equality Act 2010. While allowing Mr Olivier's claim to proceed, the tribunal suggested that the claimant was dismissed because he breached the employer's strict rules on political activity, not because of his political beliefs.

Refusal to lie to customers

Hawkins v Universal Utilities Ltd t/a Unicom ET/2501234/2012

In March 2013, an employment tribunal held that a Christian telesales agent's belief that potential customers should not be deceived to obtain sales could be protected as a philosophical belief under the Equality Act 2010.

Mr Hawkins, claimed religion or belief discrimination on the basis that he was working in a hostile environment and told to lie to potential customers, which would be contrary to his Christian beliefs. He claimed that he was dismissed for refusing to lie to customers. The employer argued that it had not required the claimant to lie to meet targets and he was dismissed over his performance.

Mr Hawkins ultimately lost his case because he did not present sufficient evidence that his former employer had required him to lie to potential customers.

2.57 A belief which is not a religious belief may be a philosophical belief. Examples of philosophical beliefs include humanism and atheism.

2.58 A belief need not include faith or worship of a God or Gods, but must affect how a person lives their life or perceives the world.

Employment statutory code of practice (page 40)


Streatfeild v London Philharmonic Orchestra Ltd ET/2390772/2011

In July 2012, an employment tribunal accepted that a violinist's belief in "humanism" could amount to a philosophical belief under the Equality Act 2010.

The case involved the disciplining of a London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO) violinist who put her name on a letter sent to the Independent newspaper criticising the invitation to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra to perform at the 2011 Proms. The LPO board suspended her on full pay for six months on the basis that she had caused serious damage to the LPO's reputation.

In Ms Streatfeild's discrimination claim, the employment tribunal noted that the Oxford English Dictionary defines humanism as "a rationalist outlook or system of thought attaching primary importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters".

The tribunal's decision was influenced by the inclusion of humanism in the explanatory notes to the Equality Act 2010 and the "Employment statutory code of practice" as an example of a philosophical belief.

However, the employment tribunal ultimately struck out Ms Streatfeild's claim as having "no reasonable prospect of success", primarily because there was nothing in the disciplinary process to suggest to the board of directors that Ms Streatfeild has strongly held humanist views. The employer did not know, and could not reasonably be expected to know, of her belief.

Public service broadcasting serves "higher purpose"

Maistry v BBC ET/1313142/10

In March 2011, an employment tribunal held that a former BBC journalist's belief that "public service broadcasting has the higher purpose of promoting cultural interchange and social cohesion" was a philosophical belief for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010.

Mr Maistry had been a student leader, trade unionist and journalist in South Africa at the time of the anti-apartheid struggle and was banned from studying at university in South Africa for his role, alongside Steve Biko, in the black student boycotts in 1972.

The claimant was also a founder member of the Media Workers Association of South Africa. He told the tribunal that he was forced to flee South Africa for a second time in 1987 after his reports for international news outlets led to security police raids on the Press Trust of South Africa News Agency.

The employment tribunal stressed that its first instance decision does not have the potential to "open the floodgates" for employment tribunals to be awash with claims from employees arguing that they have been discriminated against for having a strongly held belief in the purpose or mission statement of their public or private sector employer.

Mankind is duty-bound to act on catastrophic climate change

Grainger plc v Nicholson [2010] IRLR 4 EAT

In November 2009, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) set out guidelines for deciding whether or not a philosophical belief comes within the Equality Act 2010. The EAT said that the belief must:

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

Applying these criteria, the EAT accepted that the belief that "mankind is duty-bound to act on catastrophic climate change" is capable of being a philosophical belief under the Equality Act 2010.

A step too far: Beliefs not covered by the Equality Act 2010

Beliefs that tribunals have rejected as being outside the scope of the Equality Act 2010 include: