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The freedom to believe - how philosophical beliefs are protected by law

The Equality Act 2010 protects the rights of employees to practise their religion without fear of discrimination. But what about employees who hold philosophical rather than religious beliefs? Which philosophical beliefs are protected by law - and how?

In 2009, an Employment Appeal Tribunal decision defined the criteria of a philosophical belief. 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.

Humanism, pacifism and atheism are all examples of widespread philosophical beliefs that are frequently encountered in the workplace. It is the employer's your duty to ensure that your employees are not discriminated against because of their religion or belief.

Discrimination against a person because of their belief may be direct (such as when an individual is treated less favourably) or indirect (such as when a policy, practice or procedure disadvantages those who hold a belief or religion). Discrimination may also take the form of harassment or victimisation. Harassment is when an individual experiences unwanted conduct relating to his or her belief, and victimisation involves the unfair treatment of a worker who has made or supported a complaint about discrimination.

An employee's philosophical belief may relate to people of a certain age, sex or religion, but this does not give them the right to discriminate against others. Employees are equally protected from discrimination because they are not part of a religion or belief system.

Acas operates an Equality and diversity advisory service which can help your organisation ensure it has the best policies and practices in place . It also publishes the Advisory booklet - Delivering Equality and Diversity and offers training on Equality, diversity and the Equality Act 2010.

Visit Contracts and hours: how Acas can help in the Acas Training and Business Solutions area for more information.

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