Copyright? Vegetarianism? What counts as a ‘protected’ philosophical belief in the workplace?

If you’re an employer, you’ll know that the law says that your employees should be able to practise their religion without fear of discrimination.

It’s normally quite easy to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs.

If someone wishes to pray at work, it should be possible to provide a space in which they can do so. If an employee wishes to take time off to celebrate a religious holiday, you can offer to let them take it out of their annual leave or even trade a bank holiday that they don’t celebrate.

Yet, while it’s common knowledge that you can’t discriminate against employees because of their religion, fewer employers are aware that certain philosophical beliefs are also protected in law.

It’s a concept I hadn’t thought about in any detail until I read about a recent case in which someone took their employer to court, claiming discrimination on the grounds of belief.

Their belief? The ‘sanctity’ of copyright!

Is copyright really a protected belief?

The case involved a writer and filmmaker who had refused to sign a contract that granted her employer the rights to any work she produced while working for the company.

She said that was an unfair request because the relevant clause could mean she’d lose the copyright on any work she created during her spare time.

Her employer saw her point and agreed to amend the contract. The revised version stated that the company only retained the rights to the work she carried out in relation to its business.

Even so, she refused to sign the new contract. After eight months she was dismissed.

So she took her employer to a tribunal, claiming that her belief in the ‘sanctity’ of copyright had been discriminated against. It was, she argued, her philosophical belief that people should own and profit from their own work.

You’re probably wondering whether, given she had such a particular and strong belief, she had shared it with her employer while discussing her contract?

Nope.

So, to cut a long story short, the tribunal decided that a belief in copyright is not a protected philosophical belief.

On a less esoteric note, you may also be interested to know that, according to another tribunal, vegetarianism isn’t a protected belief either. Veganism might be – and I’ll come back to that in a minute.

Before I do, it’s worth looking at what is considered to be a protected philosophical belief. According to ACAS, a 2009 tribunal ruled that it 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
  • be worthy of respect in a democratic society, compatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others.

 

Vegetarianism was deemed not to be a philosophical belief but rather a lifestyle choice which – because people’s reasons for being a vegetarian differ so much – lacked cogency and coherence.

Whether ‘ethical veganism’ is a protected belief, though, will soon be put to the test – thanks to a tribunal hearing the case of a vegan employee who was sacked by the League Against Cruel Sports for disclosing that it invested in pension funds in firms that were involved in animal testing.

So, as an employer, where does this leave you? What counts as a protected belief, and what steps should you take to accommodate such beliefs? It’s fair to say that this aspect of employment law has the potential to become very complex indeed.

In the meantime, your best bet is to be accommodating to your employees’ beliefs whenever it’s possible and practical – and to turn to a good employment lawyer if you feel you need advice.

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