Environmentalism, the British Religion

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Anthony Devlin / PA

Tim Nicholson contends that he was laid off because his views on the environment were not shared by Grainger executives

From animism to naturalistic pantheism, there are various belief systems that deify the natural world. But should a fervent belief in the need to fight climate change be given the same legal protection as an actual religion? A London judge said yes, ruling this week that environmentalism should carry the same legal weight as religion under Britain's employment laws.

The case involved Tim Nicholson, 42, who was laid off last year from his job as head of sustainability at Grainger Plc, Britain's largest residential-property company. Nicholson contended he was laid off because his views on the environment were not shared by Grainger executives, and he sued the company for unfair dismissal under Britain's six-year-old Religion and Belief Regulations, which make it unlawful to discriminate against a person on the grounds of their religious or philosophical beliefs. Grainger argued that Nicholson's climate-change convictions did not qualify for protection under the law. But in a landmark ruling on Nov. 3, Justice Michael Burton found 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 law]."

Nicholson, who now works for an organization lobbying for greener health care, tells TIME he feels the decision is a victory for those pushing for corporate responsibility. "Organizations that already take sustainability seriously, they have nothing to fear from this judgment," he says. "There are so many positive reasons why companies should take steps to reduce their consumption of fossil fuels, this decision only adds to an already substantial list."

Nicholson's case came about because of a peculiarity of British law. Prior to 2003, Britain had no statute that protected employees from religious discrimination. The Religion and Belief Regulations were meant to remedy this. But because the law offered only a vague definition of "religious or philosophical beliefs," it has fallen to judges to interpret it and define which beliefs deserve protection. In the most important ruling so far, Burton's generous interpretation of the law will have far-ranging and complicated ramifications, employment experts say.

Caroline Doran, an employment specialist at the London law firm Sprecher Grier Halberstam LLP, tells TIME the decision will "result in a tidal wave of philosophical-related litigation to employment tribunals." And because employees claiming unfair dismissal on the grounds of discrimination are entitled to much higher payouts than those with standard claims, the strain on employers could be immense.

"The concept of philosophical beliefs is so wide that it will open a Pandora's box for employers and give individuals a foothold to obtain six- and seven-figure 'jackpot' payouts," Doran says. "It is only a matter of time before an employee with a marginal philosophical belief will get a million-pound payout after his exceptional views were not appreciated by management or colleagues."

But not all experts agree. Victoria Phillips, head of employment law at the London firm Thompson's Solicitors, says Burton's ruling laid out several tests to prevent frivolous claims: to qualify for protection, beliefs must focus on a weighty and substantial aspect of human life, they must have a certain level of seriousness and importance, and they must be worthy of respect in a democratic society and not be in conflict with the fundamental rights of others. Along with climate change, "the political philosophies of socialism, Marxism, communism or free-market capitalism might qualify," Burton said in his ruling. But he noted that fringe beliefs — the belief in the supreme nature of Jedi knights, for example — would not qualify for protection.

"I certainly would advise companies to be careful about how they treat employees with strongly held political beliefs, but I think common sense will prevail," Phillips says. "There were similar concerns among employers about a flood of claims when a law was brought in to protect whistle-blowers in 1998. But the courts have been pretty astute at seeing through bogus claims. I suspect a similar situation with this law."

Nicholson had argued that he was dismissed because his views on how to make the company environmentally sustainable had put him at odds with other senior staff at Grainger and had been ignored by managers. The Independent newspaper reported that Nicholson ran afoul of executives when he complained that the CEO had ordered an employee to fly from London to Ireland to deliver a BlackBerry he had left behind. Nicholson must now appear before a British employment tribunal with his former employers and prove that he was laid off because of his environmental beliefs, not corporate restructuring. The tribunal will then decide if he's eligible for compensation.

Dave Butler, Grainger's director of corporate affairs, said in a statement that the decision to lay off Nicholson was driven solely by "the operational needs of the company during a period of extraordinary market turbulence. Grainger rejects outright any suggestion that there was any other motivation relating to Mr. Nicholson's beliefs or otherwise."

Whatever the outcome of the case, climate campaigners can at least take heart in knowing that in British employment courts, if nowhere else, the earth is considered a holy place.