Law

A legal step towards chaos

As a secularist, I’ve always argued that religious belief should have no more protection than any other sort of belief – political, philosophical, or whatever.

I still maintain this is the case. If a BNP member can’t cite their “heartfelt and genuinely held” political beliefs as a reason to refuse service to black people, then I don’t see why similar religious convictions should be a valid excuse to refuse service to gay people.

In short, I would have liked to see the end of religious beliefs being privileged over any other sort of belief.

But I did not imagine it could go this way. I did not imagine that, instead of removing religious privilege, a British judge would elevate other beliefs to equal ranking. Quite simply, this is a recipe for madness and confusion.

It centers on the case of an employee who refused to fly his boss’s Blackberry to him after the boss had accidentally left it behind. The employee claimed the request offended his deeply held beliefs on climate-change and refused. He was fired.

Now, I don’t want to debate climate change. That’s really not the issue. I don’t know whether the importance of the data on the boss’s Blackberry was more potentially valuable that the carbon-footprint… really, this is not about climate change, or whether it is good or bad science. Please do not debate that. It is merely the incidental subject of their dispute. As far as the legal implications that interest me go, the subject of their dispute isn’t relevant. It could have been anything. What is an important issue, is the judge’s ruling that:

“A belief in man-made climate change, and the alleged resulting moral imperatives, is capable if genuinely held, of being a philosophical belief for the purpose of the 2003 Religion and Belief Regulations.” Under those regulations it is unlawful to discriminate against a person on the grounds of their religious or philosophical beliefs.

Does this not open up a whole can of legal worms, where any authority, hierarchy, chain-of-command or responsibility is rendered meaningless by subjectivity? Does this mean that any belief – as long as it is “genuinely held” (wrong or right isn’t important) – is legally protected?

What will this mean for business and employment? What will this mean for civic institutions? What will this mean for education? And – ultimately – what will this mean for civil rights and anti-discrimination?

Has an awful precedent been set by Mr Justice Michael Burton?

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