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Supporting a football team is not a philosophical belief

Sep 22, 2022

The Equality Act sets out that religions or philosophical beliefs are protected in law and specifies conditions that need to be satisfied to qualify.  

Whilst religions are usually relatively easy to recognise, it is more challenging to understand and identify what a ‘philosophical belief’ is and if it meets the criteria for protection under the Equality Act.

In 2022, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) confirmed that supporting a football club does not equate to a protected philosophical belief. The Claimant, Mr McClung, had been a Rangers Football Club fan for 42 years. He had never missed a match, spent most of his income on attending both home and away fixtures and even received yearly birthday cards from the club. In his opinion, he believed that supporting Rangers was a ‘way of life’ and as important as him attending church.  

Whilst the Claimant brought claims for unfair dismissal and discrimination, they were both dismissed. This is because the legislation states that in order to be afforded protection under the Act, Mr McClung would have to satisfy the following:

  • His belief has to be one that is genuinely held
  • It must be a belief and not an opinion or viewpoint that is based on the present state of information available
  • His belief must be one which is a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour
  • His belief must have attained a level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance
  • His belief must be worthy of respect within a democratic society, and not be incompatible with human dignity or conflict with the fundamental rights of others.

It was said that the definition of “support” (i.e. being interested in the Rangers Football club) contrasted with the definition of “belief” (which means “an acceptance that something exists or is true, especially one without proof”).  Also, the Tribunal said that supporting a football club is a ‘lifestyle choice’ and did not represent a belief that was either a weighty or substantial aspect of human life. As part of the Claimant’s argument, he believed that Ranger’s fans attained a level of seriousness and cohesion because they ‘all had support for the Union, loyalty to the Queen and behaved in the same way’. The EAT ruled against this, but agreed that Rangers fans did, simultaneously, want the team to win.

In order to bring a successful unlawful discrimination claim relating to a particular philosophical belief, a Claimant must satisfy the five stage test whilst proving that there was a causal link between the discrimination and their declared beliefs. 

The potential and scope of these philosophical belief claims are vast, which makes it difficult for employers.  In recent times, the EAT have accepted philosophical belief claims relating to ‘environmentalism and the belief in climate change’, an ‘anti-fox hunting belief’ and ‘ethical veganism’.

At present, the EAT also provides guidance on a number of beliefs that have not met the criteria of a philosophical belief. These include ‘the sanctity of copyright law’, as well as ‘beliefs that 9/11 and 7/7 were “false flag” operations’ and the ‘belief that the holocaust did not happen’. In respect of the latter two examples provided, legislation states that beliefs supporting terrorism will never be capable of being worthy of respect in a democratic society.

How could employers improve as the years go on?

As the years go on, the world is becoming more adaptive and open to differing beliefs and viewpoints.  With that being said, it is important for employers to remain respectful to evolving beliefs and to ensure people are treated fairly.  Diversity training is often useful for employees to understand and appreciate these different protected characteristics and this can also be reiterated through diversity policies – setting out a zero tolerance to discrimination, harassment and victimisation.

Philosophical beliefs remain open-ended and complex, so employers should proceed with caution when handling complaints or grievances – even where the company may not necessarily hold these views too.

For further information or to discuss the issues raised by this update, please contact our Employment Group on 01276 854663 or employment@herrington-carmichael.com.

This reflects the law at the date of publication and is written as a general guide. It does not contain definitive legal advice, which should be sought as appropriate in relation to a particular matter.

Olivia Larkin

Olivia Larkin

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