EMPLOYMENT TRIBUNAL | Philosophical belief discrimination

An interesting case regarding the refusal to sign an agreement because of a philosophical belief has been put before the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT).

What are the facts of the case?

Ms Gray worked for Mulberry, a well-known fashion and design company. She was asked to sign a standard copyright agreement, which gave her employer the rights to any work undertaken during employment. As a writer and film-maker, she was worried that this would also extend to cover these activities.

Mulberry made it clear to her that this was not the case and amended the clause to state it only covered work which was related to the employer’s business. But Ms Gray was still unhappy with the amended wording. Despite various meetings and discussions, she still refused to sign the agreement. She was subsequently dismissed with notice.

What did she claim?

Ms Gray claimed that she held a belief in ‘the statutory human or moral right to own the copyright and moral rights of her own creative works and output’ and this constituted to a philosophical belief within the meaning of the Equality Act.

What does the law say about philosophical beliefs?

Religion or belief is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act. This means that employees are protected from direct or indirect discrimination, harassment and victimisation due to their religion or belief.

In the Employment Code of Practice, it says the following:

‘A belief which is not a religious belief may be a philosophical belief. Examples of philosophical beliefs include Humanism and Atheism.

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.

 For a philosophical belief to be protected under the Act:

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

What did the EAT conclude?

The EAT reasoned that ‘The refusal to sign could, objectively viewed, have been for any number of reasons, none of which had anything to do with a philosophical belief’.  They took note of the fact that she had not made public to her employer that she held this belief or explained that this was the reason for declining to sign the agreement.

They continued that ‘Whilst the impact on the Claimant refusing to sign was severe, the Respondent’s interests as a design company, in seeking to protect its intellectual property and in ensuring that employees were aware of their obligations in this regard, were correspondingly greater’.

To find out more about discrimination on the basis of religion or belief, read our HR guide or contact your Ellis Whittam Employment Law specialist.

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James Tamm

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