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Religious discrimination law may open door for decent deviants

Pagans, vampires and libertines protected?

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How far can your personal beliefs shield you against a growing culture of enforced respectability? Does paganism count as a "protected" philosophy? Will the law on religious discrimination herald the possibility of a new tolerance in sexual matters?

Sacked police trainer Alan Power certainly hopes that is the case. At a forthcoming tribunal in London he will argue that his belief in the power of mediums combined with his 30-year membership of the Spiritualist Church is every bit as valid as more mainstream religious and philosophical views – and equally worthy of legal protection.

In fact, the door is already halfway open, as in an earlier judgment Judge Peter Russell has already stated that said that Mr Power’s Spiritualist beliefs had "sufficient cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance" to be covered by the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003.

This follows a key ruling last month, in which it was held that an individual had the right to sue for wrongful dismissal on the grounds that his environmental views were a philosophical belief - and not a political view.

Both these cases are still subject to a final ruling by the relevant tribunal. However, if upheld, this interpretation of the law may put a major spoke in the wheels of organisations that have been busy setting up "Codes of Conduct" for their employees which appear to be based on little more than a desire to fit in with mainstream respectability.

There has been considerable objection to the introduction by the General Teaching Council of a Code of Conduct which includes a requirement that individuals should "maintain reasonable standards in their own behaviour that enable them to maintain an effective learning environment and also to uphold public trust and confidence in the profession".

Similar codes apply for individuals working – or intending to work – in social work, for the local council, or even as a magistrate. Over the past year, a belief in paganism, an interest in the erotic side of vampirism and a previous appearance in a porn film have all been considered by employers as sufficient grounds for dismissal.

A young woman planning to take up a career in social work was dissuaded from so doing after being informed that her sexual lifestyle was incompatible with their code of conduct. An applicant for a position as a magistrate was instantly rejected after he revealed his personal interest in BDSM.

It is unlikely that all such instances would be covered by the concept of "philosophical belief", but lawyers active who are expert in employment law have pointed out that the initial ruling in the environmental case, combined with article 8 of the Human Rights Act – the right to a personal and private family life - provide some hope of turning back the tide of employer-enfored conformity.

One of the key principles enunciated by the courts in telling whether something is a philosophical belief is that it should be a "settled and consistent" belief. A further principle requires that this belief not be political.

This raises the possibility of some very intersting future cases, as individuals lay claim to the principle enunciated by the Consenting Adult Action Network (CAAN) that what consenting adults get up to in the privacy of their own bedroom is no business of government – and the courts must eventually decide whether a belief in sexual freedom is both settled and philosophical. ®

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