Most people understand what a religion is, so normally it is fairly clear who would be protected by the UK’s religious discrimination laws. Periodic prayer, some possible impact on food or clothing perhaps, and your not being the only one, you know the sort of thing.

But what about “philosophical beliefs”, also potentially protected by discrimination legislation in many jurisdictions? What falls into that category?

At the end of 2009 we learnt that a strongly-held view that “mankind is heading towards catastrophic climate change” and therefore that we are “under a moral duty to lead our lives in a manner which mitigates or avoids this catastrophe” was sufficient to protect the believer from discrimination. In 2010 that protection was afforded also to a belief in spiritualism, the view that one can get in touch with the dead. Earlier this year, a fervent anti-fox hunting belief was also considered to be a “philosophical belief” and now Practical Law Company reports a decision pushing the boundaries still further, a brow-furrowing finding that a passionate belief in the higher purpose of public service broadcasting could also be a philosophical belief.

These decisions were made by Employment Tribunals and so do not have any binding effect on later cases. However, they should be a warning to employers that if an employee holds passionate beliefs on, frankly, almost anything, those views should be respected, even if the employer thinks them trivial, offensive or just a gigantic nuisance. The common condition that to gain the protection of the law, a belief must be worthy of respect in a civilised society weeds out distressingly few claims of this sort.

Practically speaking, what does this mean? Employers should not mock their staff for such beliefs, and should take reasonable steps to prevent their staff from doing so. They should also be careful about asking the employee to do something contrary to those strongly held beliefs. For example, would an employee with strong anti-smoking beliefs be protected if he refused to work for a tobacco company client? Would strong pacifist beliefs justify a refusal to service an arms-manufacturer client?

It all depends. If you are considering action against such an employee, you must be seen to consider any alternatives – putting him on a different account, altering his duties, etc., before taking such action, and to consult with the employee. You can at least take some comfort from the recognised difference between the belief on the one hand and the way it is manifested on the other – where the believer imposes his views on others or seeks by them to justify behaviour which would otherwise be misconduct then his protection can disappear.