Many readers will have noticed in the Press last month (perhaps understandably with a degree of concern and bewilderment) that it was reported that a Naval officer in the British Armed Forces has been allowed to register as a Satanist by the ship’s Captain, reportedly meaning that he will be allowed to carry out Satanic rituals onboard the ship. A spokesman for the Royal Navy was allegedly quoted as saying that this was because it was an equal opportunities employer and did not stop anybody from having their own religious values. Is this a step too far, or is the Navy correct in thinking that the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003 (“the Regulations”), which came into force on 1 December 2003, will now provide protection to Satan worshippers, even allowing them to carry out Satanic rituals at work?
The Regulations define “religion or belief” as any “religion, religious belief, or similar philosophical belief”. Ultimately it will be for the Courts and Tribunals to determine through case law, in accordance with the relevant European Directive, whether particular religions or belief will fall within this definition. Some religions will unquestionably fall within the definition of “religion”, such as Christianity, Hinduism or Rastafarianism. The European Court of Human Rights (“ECHR”) has also recognised other collective religions such as Druidism and the Church of Scientology as being a “religion”. The reference to “religious belief” clearly extends the protection of the Regulations beyond traditional religions alone, to encompass other beliefs founded in religion. Again, the ECHR provides some guidance on this, suggesting that other beliefs may be covered if they have a level of cogency, seriousness and importance and are not incompatible with human dignity. Contrary to popular belief (no pun intended…) it is not necessary that the worship of any particular God or gods is involved.
The reference to “similar philosophical belief” takes this definition even further, although the philosophical belief must still be a profound belief affecting a person’s way of life, and must be akin to a religious belief. As such, political beliefs, a belief in animal rights or “Fathers for Justice” would be extremely unlikely to fall within the protection of the Regulations.
The first question relating to the Satan worshipper would therefore be whether this constitutes a “religion, religious belief or similar philosophical belief”. Whilst this will ultimately be for the Tribunals to determine, and is open for debate, it seems possible that this would in fact fall within the broad protection of the Regulations.
The Regulations prevent direct and indirect discrimination on the grounds of religion, religious belief or similar philosophical belief, and also victimisation or harassment on those grounds.
However, even if covered by the Regulations the protection is not unlimited. Article 9 of the ECHR provides, importantly, that the definition of “religion or belief” does not extend to the manifestation of that religion or belief where limitations are necessary in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. This provides a useful caveat preventing membership of cults or beliefs which are considered dangerous from being able to claim discrimination when dangerous rituals are practiced and they are dismissed or disciplined as a result.
In relation to the naval officer, it is not known exactly what type of “rituals” he was proposing to carry out. If the naval officer attempted to undertake any ritual which threatened the safety of his fellow employees, any action taken against him would not be direct discrimination provided that the action was being taken as a result of the statements made by the officer or the ritual being practiced, rather than because of the beliefs themselves. This means that as long as the employer can show that it would discipline other employees in the same way for displaying similar behaviour, this would not amount to direct discrimination on the grounds of his religion or beliefs. It could constitute indirect discrimination if the practice particularly disadvantages those who shared the employee’s beliefs, but not if the employer could show that this was justified (e.g. to provide a safe place of work for colleagues).
The DTI’s guidance on this provides the example of an employee where his religion does not accept homosexuality. If the employee makes offensive remarks about a gay person at work, disciplinary action against him would not be direct discrimination provided that any other employee who made these remarks would be disciplined in the same way. Similarly it would not be indirect discrimination even if this requirement particularly disadvantages those of the employee’s faith, where the employer could show that the action was justified (for example to enforce its equal opportunities policy).
Therefore, it seems after all that even if the Satan worshipper does have protection under the Regulations, people need not panic that this is going to mean that all of his practices can go unchallenged. Employers should take a sensible approach to employing employees from all religious and philosophical backgrounds, and ensure that they treat any practices or rituals arising from those beliefs in a manner which is consistent.