Judge cites Russell in protecting philosophical beliefs

Earlier this month, Mr Justice Michael Burton ruled that employees holding philosophical views based on science and reason should be afforded the same legal protection from discrimination as those with religious beliefs. The case concerned Tim Nicholson, the former head of sustainability for Grainger, the UK’s largest listed residential property company. Nicholson claimed that he had been sacked due to his environmental beliefs. But Grainger’s lawyers contended that environmental views are political and a “lifestyle choice” which cannot be compared to religion or philosophy.

Mr Burton ruled that Nicholson’s views were entitled to the same protection as religious views and that the case should go before an employment tribunal. The written ruling, which looked at whether philosophy could be underpinned by a scientific belief, quoted from Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy and ultimately concluded that a belief in climate change, while a political view about science, can also be a philosophical one. Interestingly, Mr Burton ruled last year that Al Gore’s environmental documentary An Inconvenient Truth was political and partisan as he assessed whether it should be shown to schools. (You can read about the case here and here.)

Camilla Palmer, of the legal firm Leigh Day and Co, suggested that the ruling opened the doors for an even wider category of deeply held beliefs, such as feminism, vegetarianism or humanism. Palmer commented: “It’s a great decision. Why should it only be religions which are protected?” However, perhaps not everyone will be so pleased by the ruling. Trade unionists campaigning for BNP members to be banned from public sector employment might fear that this ruling will also serve to protect far-right extremists. Indeed, might this fear also be what lies behind the government’s decision to remove protection for “political beliefs and beliefs in scientific theories” in it’s new equality bill, currently before parliament? Paragraph 10 of the new bill states:

“Communism, Darwinism, Fascism and Socialism are not beliefs that fall within the definition; nor is adherence to a particular football team. However, beliefs such as atheism and humanism would be covered.”

You can read the entire bill here.

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