Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

When is climate change a religion?

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Most ASCL members know that the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003 prohibit discrimination on the grounds of any 'religious or philosophical belief'.

However, in Nicholson v Grainger Plc a tribunal took this forward to include a belief in climate change. Mr Nicholson was declared redundant from his post at the company as head of sustainability and claimed that this was because of his belief in climate change.

The test for a religion or belief is that beliefs 'should have sufficient cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance, and are worthy of respect in a democratic society'.

Mr Nicholson claimed that his views on climate change were not merely a matter of opinion "but a philosophical belief which affects how I live my life, including my choice of home, how I travel, what I buy, what I eat and drink, what I do with my waste and my hopes and fears".

The tribunal, in finding for Mr Nicholson, expressed the view that this was unlikely to open the floodgates as it would be necessary to prove that any actions taken by an employer were motivated by discriminatory motives. The definitions and descriptions above may be of assistance to members confronted with philosophically minded sixth formers with original views.

The decision of the Employment Appeal Tribunal that Mr Nicholson's belief in climate change constitutes a 'belief' that should be protected by religious discrimination law shows just how equality law widens beyond the layman's view once it gets into the courts.

So where are we now? The employment judge laid down the following as conditions for a belief to be able to claim protection under the religious discrimination regulations.

  • The belief must be genuinely held.

  • It must be a belief and 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, be not incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others.

The two interesting questions that now arise from Mr Nicholson's case are 'How far does this go?' and 'What rights has he to manifest his belief?' The answer to the first, according to some enthusiastic lawyers, is: as far as we can go. They believe that feminism and vegetarianism, for example, both qualify.

The answer to the second is even more interesting. Is trying to shut down a power station manifesting your belief in climate change and hence protected by religious discrimination law? We shall see. In the meantime, it is one more hazard for schools and colleges to negotiate.

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