ARE religions and political movements essentially the same sort of thing, with a common love of hymns, initiation rites and utopian ideals? Gaetano Mosca, one of the fathers of modern political science, thought so. Doubtless he was influenced by the radical political movements of his era—fascism, extreme nationalism and communism, each offering a rival version of paradise—competing for the souls of Europe. As he put it:
All religions, even those that deny the supernatural, have their special declamatory style, and their sermons, lectures, and speeches are delivered in it. All of them have their rituals and their displays of pomp to strike the fancy. Some parade with lighted candles and chant litanies. Others march behind red banners to the tune of the “Marseillaise” or the “Internationale”….
At a more down-to-earth level, British employment judges have been pondering whether political ideology is a “protected belief”, enjoying the same sort of rights as spiritual belief, for the purposes of equality laws which ban discrimination, harassment, biased hiring or unfair dismissal. Since it is European law that they are interpreting, their conclusions will have some resonance across the continent.
The latest case concerns a radical trade unionist who was dismissed after irking his bosses, and the leaders of the Labour Party, by helping stage a picket outside the House of Commons in support of workers in the building. He told an employment judge he had paid dearly for his faith in “left-wing democratic socialism”. Specifically, he believed in “workers’ control”, which meant the right of employees to participate in decisions about their workplace; maintaining picket lines was part of that belief. An initial hearing found that Keith Henderson’s dismissal by the GMB union was fair, but also agreed that he had suffered “intimidating, hostile or humiliating” treatment because of his ideas, and ordered a compensation payment.
Last month, an appeal hearing overturned the complaint of harassment, quashed the compensation and again vindicated the dismissal. However the judge strongly reaffirmed that in general, philosophical beliefs were “protected” against discrimination in exactly the same way as religions: “Philosophical beliefs may be just as fundamental and integral to a person’s individuality and daily life as are religious beliefs.”
Cornelius Olivier, a Cornishman who is standing for Labour in the parliamentary election, made a similar claim, with a similar result. A few years ago, he was fired from his position at a job centre after it became known he was running for the local council. He complained to a tribunal that his belief in “democratic socialism” had incurred discrimination. This wasn’t a frivolous claim, he insists: he reckons that public servants who stood for other parties had been treated more leniently, and that he suffered because of a letter he wrote to the paper about spending cuts.
In an initial hearing, he was assured that his belief did have a legal right to fair treatment, just as religious beliefs did, but his claim was unlikely to succeed, so he could not expect any state help with legal costs; this made it too expensive to proceed. “My belief is protected but this didn’t protect me,” he complains.
Employment lawyers are mulling over the implications of such cases. “They increase the burden on managers to take the beliefs of their workers very seriously, whatever they may be,” says Tom Heys of the London firm of Lewis Silkin. Neil Addison, a barrister who specialises in religion, sees these episodes as a consequence of loosely worded English law. In Northern Ireland, where politics and faith are often intertwined, “political beliefs” are formally protected from discrimination; if the legislators of England and Wales want something similar, they should write that explicitly that into law, he thinks.
The current wording is certainly nebulous enough to allow for drift. An initial version of the law, in 2003, protected “religious belief or similar philosophical belief”. As is noted by Frank Cranmer, a law-and-religion blogger, a later iteration dropped the word “similar” and implied that many sorts of belief could qualify. But Baroness Scotland, as a Home Office minister in 2005, promised Parliament that “belief” would not be frivolously interpreted; a body of British and European law had established that to merit legal protection, a belief must meet robust criteria. (The qualifiers often used include “genuine”, “cogent” and “worthy of respect in a democratic society…”) She added:
…An example of a belief that might meet this description is humanism, and examples of something that might not—I hope I do not give any offence to anyone present in the Chamber—would be support of a political party or a belief in the supreme nature of the Jedi Knights.
Just how clear a distinction that is is left as an exercise for the reader.