Jonathan Rennie: Tribunal ruling throws up a new philosophical challenge

Plato, Aristotle and Descartes would no doubt be delighted. However, legislation that accords philosophical beliefs the same protection from discrimination as religion should have employers cogitating on the potential repercussions.

A landmark ruling by a judge at a Southampton employment tribunal could have a significant impact on workplaces across the country following the decision that an employee's fervent opposition to fox-hunting and hare-coursing amounts to a protected "philosophical belief" under employment law.

Joe Hashman, an animal rights activist, claimed he was unfairly sacked from his job at a garden centre after his employers, both of whom are members of the South & West Wiltshire Hunt, learnt he was a hunt saboteur. Delivering his ruling, Judge Lawrence Guyer stated Hashman's belief in the sanctity of life "extends to his fervent anti-fox hunting belief" and that "such beliefs constitute a philosophical belief for the purposes of the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003". As a result, Hashman won the right to sue his former employers for discrimination.

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It remains to be seen whether Hashman is ultimately successful in his 50,000 damages claim at a full employment tribunal hearing later this year; nevertheless, the ruling sets an important precedent by indicating the types of beliefs that could be protected.

It is not beyond the realms of possibility that vegans, creationists or believers in the Big Bang cosmological theory, for example, could argue successfully that their beliefs should be accorded the same protection. There are precedents in this regard.

In 2009, a judge at the employment appeal tribunal ruled environmental beliefs deserve the same protection as religious convictions. Tim Nicholson, an environmental campaigner, was given permission to sue Grainger, the UK's biggest residential landlord, after claiming he was made redundant because of his opinions about the dangers of climate change. The case was ultimately settled out of court, without any admission of liability. However, the ruling established his was a belief worthy of protection.

This test has also been brought to bear successfully on less mainstream beliefs. Alan Power, a spiritualist, claimed he was sacked by Greater Manchester Police when his employers became aware of his belief that messages from beyond the grave could assist criminal investigations. The employment appeals tribunal found a belief in spiritualism passed the "philosophical beliefs" test. These recent, and some might say unusual, cases heard by employment tribunals are a consequence of changes made to employment and equality law to take account of the interests of secular groups.Although the definitions of religion and philosophical belief are in line with article nine of the European Convention on Human Rights, providing a right to freedom, thought and religion, it has been left to UK courts and tribunals to decide where the line should be drawn.

Atheists and humanists are likely to be protected. So too are agnostics by virtue of their lack of belief in any religion; a right not to hold a religious belief is enshrined in the legislation. Believers in voodoo and witchcraft, on the other hand, are unlikely to be protected because their beliefs may not command respect in a democratic society and could be incompatible with human dignity.

Rastafarian and Christians' beliefs are protected, however manifestations of those beliefs, such as growing one's hair in dreadlocks or wearing a cross may not be. And while a philosophical belief is protected, so too is a lack of belief. If somebody can argue opposition to fox hunting is a philosophical belief so too can an individual who supports fox hunting. Every time a new category is protected, then so too is everybody who holds the opposite view.

As these cases show, the situation faced by employers is highly problematic, given how difficult it is to identify what might qualify as a protected philosophical belief and what does not. The prospect of a growing number of employees raising claims on the basis they have discriminated against because of their beliefs - legitimately or for spurious reasons - should also be cause for concern, particularly in the current economic climate.

• Jonathan Rennie is an associate in law firm DLA Piper Scotland's employment team