Employment Law Snippet – No.2 – Is being Jedi a religion or belief?

Hello and welcome to our second Employment Law Snippet article. As usual, this article aims to focus on one general topic and engage in an interesting, non-jargon filled discussion on how that subject matter may affect employees and employers alike. Naturally, the below involves (quite a bit of) simplification of the law and isn’t set out out as any form of actual legal advice!

This week’s topic is a quirky one: Jedi! Yes, this is inspired by 0.8% of the 2001 UK census forms having ‘Jedi’ entered under ‘religion’. You may well be thinking ‘what on earth does the Jedi faith from Star Wars have to do with employment law?’ Well, as usual, an interesting question usually leads to an interesting answer…

Firstly, before tackling the big question, why is the definition of a “religion or belief” within the Equality Act 2010 important for employers? Simply put, it is important because it is unlawful for an employer to discriminate against an employee because of their ‘religion and/or beliefs or lack of religion or beliefs’.

Religious discrimination in faith schools

“Living in sin” – it was a phrase frequently heard not that many years ago but now, in a mark of changing times, is seldom if ever heard. However, the phrase, in its literal sense, has resurfaced in what some might consider to be a remarkable decision of the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) in the case of Gan Menachem Hendon Limited v Ms Zelda de Groen.

Ms de Groen worked from 2012 to 2016 at the Gan Menachem Hendon nursery as a teacher. The nursery is linked with the ultra orthodox Chabad Lubavitch Hasidic movement. When attending a barbecue with her boyfriend, he revealed, in the presence of parents of children who attended the nursery and one of the nursery’s directors, that he and Ms de Groen were cohabiting. There followed a meeting between Ms de Groen, the headteacher Miriam Lieberman and the nursery’s managing director, Dina Toron. In the course of the meeting Ms de Groen was told that her private life was of no concern to the nursery. However, she was asked to confirm that she was no longer living with her boyfriend so that “concerned parents” could be notified accordingly. In other words she was asked to lie and refused to do so.

As if that was not enough Ms Lieberman and Ms Toron told Ms de Groen that cohabitation outside marriage was wrong, that having children outside of marriage was wrong and that, at the age of 23, Ms de Groen should be aware that “time was passing” for her to have children. They also suggested that if Ms de Groen had problems with the idea of marriage, she should seek counselling. Ms de Groen was very tearful and distressed. She felt that such a meeting should not have taken place and only continued in her employment because she loved working with the children. Two days later she asked for a written apology and confirmation that it would not happen again. She said that she had taken legal advice. Mrs Toron and Mrs Lieberman said that she was being threatening and aggressive at the meeting (the Tribunal found that she was not, but she was clear and firm). They did not apologise. Instead, they said that they should not have been so nice to her and that they had sufficient “ammunition” to deal with any claim that she might bring. They then cut the meeting short.

The following day Ms de Groen received a letter notifying her of the commencement of disciplinary proceedings.

Can a negative reaction to a refusal to shake hands constitute discrimination on grounds of religion?

The internet is riddled with articles detailing the importance of a good handshake, but just how vital is it for the proper performance of your duties at work? A Swedish, Muslim, woman has been awarded compensation after her job interview for a role as an interpreter was terminated when, due to religious grounds she would not shake hands with her potential employer.

When the male interviewer extended his hand in greeting as is traditional in Europe, Farah Alhajeh, 24, instead placed her hand over her heart. The response was her way of greeting the interviewer in a way that also aligned with her religious beliefs.

Some Muslims avoid physical contact with members of the opposite sex (except for in cases of emergency, or when there is a ‘special relationship’ present – i.e. the individual in question is their partner or a blood relative). This is why Ms Alhajeh offered an alternate greeting – there was no such special relationship between Ms Alhajeh and her interviewer, so she placed her hand on her heart, as is commonly done by those who share the same belief.

In handing down the judgement, the Swedish Labour Court (similar to the Employment Tribunal in the United Kingdom), had to balance the employer’s interest with the individual’s right to bodily integrity and the importance for the state to maintain protection for religious freedom.

The company’s main argument hinged on the fact that it was an established workplace policy that men and women were to be treated equally, and as such they could not allow a staff member to refuse a handshake based on gender.

Dismissal for beard that was “too long” and “too religious” upheld

Back in December 2015 I commented on the decision of the European Court of Human Rights in Ebrahimian v France, which concerned the termination of employment of a health worker at a hospital who refused (on religious grounds) to remove her headscarf when she was on duty at work. By way of a brief recap, state secularism (or laïcité) is a strongly protected principle in French society. That is why you will not hear hymns or carols sung in French schools and there was a big fuss last month when a village commune tried to place a nativity scene in the square in front of the local mairie. It was determined that Ms Ebrahimian, by wearing a symbol of religious affiliation, was breaching her duties as a public official. In its judgment the court held that the non-renewal of her employment contract did amount to an interference with her right to manifest her religion, contrary to Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights. However, that interference had the legitimate aim of protecting the rights and freedoms of others, pursuant to French law. Accordingly, her claim failed.

A similar case has now surfaced in the Versailles administrative Court of Appeal. A trainee doctor of Egyptian origin was dismissed from his job at Saint-Denis hospital centre in Seine-Saint-Denis because his “imposing” beard constituted an “ostentatious display of religious belief”. The individual concerned declined to deny or confirm that his appearance was intended to be a way to “demonstrate his religious activity”.  On 19 December, the Court of Appeal supported the decision, noting that although the wearing of a beard “even long”, cannot “on its own” cannot (necessarily) constitute a sign of religious affiliation, the “circumstances” entitled the hospital to at as it did.

Is requesting a holiday from July to September manifestation of a religious belief that is capable of protection?

Where do you draw the line with protection of workers on the grounds of religious or philosophical belief? It is a question that I have been addressing in this blog ever since protection from discrimination on these grounds was first introduced. It is logical that there is a limit. For example, if a person’s belief…

Does a ban on wearing headscarves amount to direct discrimination?

In a somewhat surprising decision, given the views expressed in some other recent cases, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has decided that a ban on wearing headscarves at work does not (necessarily) constitute direct discrimination with reference to religion or belief. In  Achbita, Centrum voor Gelijkheid van kansen en voor racismebestrijding v…

Judgment published in “gay cake” appeal

In May 2015 I reported the decision of District Judge Brownlie, sitting in the Northern Ireland County Court in Lee v Ashers Baking Co Ltd and others, otherwise known as the “gay cake case”. I pointed out at the time that the District Judge was given a very tough call in essentially being asked to…

Indirect religious discrimination

Can a worker be dismissed for refusing to leave a partner convicted of unrelated criminal conduct with which the dismissed worker was not involved?   This question was considered in the recent case of Pendleton v Derbyshire County Council & Anor (Religion or Belief Discrimination) [2016] UKEAT 0238 15 2903.  The facts of this case were…