It is a fundamental feature of any democratic society that anyone can freely express their philosophical beliefs, even if others may find them offensive. An Employment Tribunal (ET) powerfully made that point in the case of a train conductor who was sacked after venting his secular atheist views on social media.
In welcoming the reopening of pubs at the end of a COVID-19 lockdown, the man wrote an online post urging people not to let their way of life ‘become some sort of Muslim alcohol-free caliphate’ just to beat the virus. In a further post, he declared himself an atheist and said that he would not want the UK to become any sort of religious or theocratic state. He emphasised that he had no desire for the UK to become an atheist state if that involved banning other beliefs.
After his employer received a complaint, he was accused of making racially offensive and discriminatory posts and dismissed for gross misconduct. He later launched ET proceedings, complaining of unfair dismissal and direct and indirect discrimination. The question of whether the views he expressed constituted a philosophical belief that should be protected under human rights and equality legislation was considered as a preliminary issue.
Ruling in his favour on that issue, the ET noted that he stood by the posts on the basis that there was nothing wrong with them. His social life revolved around pubs, where he enjoyed debating various matters, and he used social media as a means of stimulating discussion. Something of a character, he was prepared to be controversial and was unafraid to express his own individuality.
Describing himself as a secular, pluralist atheist, he said that he wished to live in a state where all political, religious and philosophical beliefs can be expounded and where freedom of speech exists. He said that he wished no harm or disrespect to anyone but that it was important to him that he be free to criticise religion. He said that he had ISIS in mind when making the posts.
The ET found him to be an entirely open and honest witness. He was a humanist who believed in secularism. Whilst rejecting religious dogma and the idea of religious theocracy, he believed that everyone has the right to believe in religion, or otherwise, with complete, unencumbered freedom from interference by the state or others. He believed in the right to criticise others and their religion, even if offence is given, as long as such criticism is non-abusive and causes no harm.
The ET did not consider that his views were intended to be anti-Islam or anti-Muslim. In any event, they did not come anywhere near to approaching the kind of belief akin to Nazism or totalitarianism that should be excluded from human rights protection. He held his coherent, weighty and substantial philosophical beliefs in good faith and they were worthy of respect in a democratic society.