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Political and religious beliefs should be given equal protection

Context important in determining whether an incident is serious enough to amount to harassment

18 March 2015

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The Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) has rejected any suggestion that philosophical belief should be given less protection than religious belief under the Equality Act 2010.

GMB v Henderson UKEAT/0073/14/DM involved Keith Henderson, a regional organiser of the General Municipal Boilermakers (GMB) trade union, who was dismissed from his employment on 7 December 2014.

At first instance the tribunal held that the claimant had been fairly dismissed due to gross misconduct, but that he had suffered direct discrimination and harassment on the basis of his left-wing democratic socialist beliefs, for which he was awarded compensation for injury to feelings.

Both parties appealed the decision. Henderson appealed the decision on the fairness of the dismissal and the amount of compensation he was awarded.

The GMB claimed Henderson had not been dismissed because of his political beliefs and that he had not been harassed. The GMB did not challenge the finding that the claimant's left-wing democratic socialist views could amount to a protected belief.

While the EAT rejected any suggestion that philosophical belief should be given less protection than religious belief, it did not, however, consider the point as to whether direct discrimination can ever arise when someone is manifesting their belief, rather than the fact of their belief.

The EAT held that it was important in a political or philosophical belief direct discrimination case for the decision makers to be aware an employee was manifesting their belief at the material time, so they have knowledge of it.

In addition, the tribunal found that being unmanageable and making allegations of collusion about the GMB and Labour party does not arise out of an individual's left wing democratic socialist beliefs.

Commenting on the judgment, Jennifer Danvers of Cloisters Chambers said: 'This detailed judgment underscores the complexities of bringing and responding to claims based on philosophical belief and, more generally, claims of direct discrimination and harassment.

'Practitioners should note the importance of taking account of context in determining whether or not an incident is serious enough to amount to harassment and of the potential difficulties in framing an appropriate hypothetical comparator in claims of direct discrimination.'

She continued: 'Simler J did not consider the distinction between treatment based on manifestation belief and treatment based on belief itself, leaving that argument open for another day. However, she did expressly reject the suggestion that philosophical belief attracts less protection than religious belief.'

John van der Luit-Drummond is legal reporter for Solicitors Journal

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