Environmental(ist) Protections November 5, 2009

Environmental(ist) Protections

This post is by Jesse Galef, who is stepping in today.

I know they do things differently “across the pond” but I was still surprised to read that in a legal case in England, climate change belief was given the same legal status as religion. No joke.

Tim Nicholson is a strong environmentalist to the point that he refuses to travel by air.  He believes this was a factor in his recent termination and wants to sue for wrongful discrimination.  This week, a judge ruled that his environmentalism qualifies as a “genuinely held philosophical belief for the purpose of the 2003 Religion and Belief Regulations” and that he could proceed with a lawsuit.

Mr Nicholson hailed the Employment Appeals Tribunal ruling as “a victory for common sense” but stressed climate change was “not a new religion”.

He said: “I believe man-made climate change is the most important issue of our time and nothing should stand in the way of diverting this catastrophe.

“This philosophical belief that is based on scientific evidence has now been given the same protection in law as faith-based religious belief.

“Belief in man-made climate change is not a new religion, it is a philosophical belief that reflects my moral and ethical values and is underlined by the overwhelming scientific evidence.”

His lawyer Shah Qureshi, head of employment law at Bindmans LLP, argued that if the ruling had gone against them, “the end result would be that the more evidence there is to support your views, the less likely it would be for you to enjoy protection against discrimination”.

Now, I don’t know enough about the British law to comment on the judge’s decision – it might be an accurate dispensation of their written laws.  But this is a great example of how complex the issue of secularism can be and how tough it is to implement.  We don’t want the state to define religion – that would be none of their authority – and without a definition we have other problems.

This situation reminds me off is the so-called “conscience protection clauses” that are typically associated with the religious right here in America.  Senator Enzi tried to slip one in the healthcare bill – I remember because when I was with the Secular Coalition we lobbied against it.  It states that if a healthcare employee feels a particular act violates their conscience, he or she can refuse to do so without fear of being fired.  In context, it usually means that someone can refuse to assist in like abortions, sell contraception, or provide end of life care.  Our position has generally been that if your supernatural beliefs are affecting your job performance, you might have chosen the wrong job and companies have the right to dismiss you.

I suppose that if a country is going to have a law like the “conscience protection clause” for religion, it might as well apply for nonreligious moral systems, right?

Wait, I just thought of something: I have a sincere belief, based on science and philosophy, that religion is incorrect and that it is immoral to promote faith.  In my job search, perhaps I should consider applying for the clergy in England – I could get paid while conscientiously refusing to work!

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  • sailor

    Religion should not have special protections under the law nor should climate change. People should find jobs that suit their conscience not demand jobs they have fit in with their ideas of the world, however real or unreal.
    What would happen if we had a Quaker hangman?

  • cathy

    I guess for me the question of whether this ruling is a good one hinges on whether or not it is a necessary part of his job to travel by air (if he is a professor who would rather travel by car, it seems silly not to give him that accomodation).

  • “Climate change belief” definitely does fall into the category of a religious belief. It’s belief without evidence, without questioning, and without skepticism. What do people mean when they say “consensus” except to use it as another word for “higher power”, after all?

    That said, I don’t feel that religious belief should have special protections under the law.

  • Tizzle

    If he got fired for not flying, when there are ways around it — driving or video conferencing, perhaps– then I feel this is a good decision.

    If someone takes a job knowing they won’t be able to perform the duties, that’s different.

    This seems more like the employer refusing to give someone a day off for a religious holiday, and then firing them, which is (in USA) and should be illegal. It’s not as if he couldn’t perform the rest of his job. Some people are extremely afraid of flying, would they be fired? Would that be okay?

    Thinking up an imaginary Quaker hangman is taking a logical point to its illogical conclusion…some type of fallacy, forget the name. Funny, but not actually relevant.

  • Liz

    maybe they didnt tell him he would be traveling when he got the job…and they obviously didnt ask him if he could travel or else they probably wouldnt have hired him in the first place.

    Besides, he was only given the ability to take his case to court. He could easily use the case. Every case is different from the next, it’s not like every person can get away with this now.

    I actually like the fact that they’re comparing other beliefs to religious beliefs now. People could easily say his beliefs dont matter because they arent religious or cultural…but now they’re getting some sort of respect.

    maybe his job really was discriminating him for his beliefs…

  • In fairness, this is probably down to some antiquated British law (founded around the same time that climate change as a theory was sketchy) that just hasn’t been changed. If there’s anything we’re awful at, it’s reform, but it is accepted here that climate change is pretty solid.

    Try not to alienate your British readers by saying “I know they do things differently ‘across the pond'” – last time I checked, the UK was a lot more tolerant to atheists than the US.

  • Miko

    Thinking up an imaginary Quaker hangman is taking a logical point to its illogical conclusion…some type of fallacy, forget the name.

    It’s called reductio ad absurdum, but it’s actually not a fallacy; it’s a valid logical principle and extremely important epistemic technique.

    You might be thinking of the slippery slope fallacy, but for that to apply you’d need to demonstrate that the two situation have an essential difference, which in this case they don’t.

    Some people are extremely afraid of flying, would they be fired? Would that be okay?

    No, the fear itself probably isn’t a problem; they’d only be fired if they let that fear get in the way of doing it. In that case, it would be perfectly okay to fire them. By firing them, their employer is doing them a favor by allowing them to find work in an area where their mental hangups don’t prevent them from doing the work they want to be paid to do.

    I guess for me the question of whether this ruling is a good one hinges on whether or not it is a necessary part of his job to travel by air (if he is a professor who would rather travel by car, it seems silly not to give him that accomodation).

    First off, it may not be silly. Traveling long distances by car takes a significantly longer amount of time and may inconvenience all those who work with him.

    Second off, even if it is silly, there’s no law against making silly or even stupid choices. If your employer feels that you contribute something of value equal to or greater than your salary, they’ll keep you employed. If they feel that dealing with you involves more costs than benefits, they’ll fire you. In practice, reasonable accommodation will be made because the transaction costs associated with hiring a new employee will make keeping an existing one desirable. But it’s ultimately up to them to decide whether what is asked is reasonable or not. Just as we have the right to not fly, we have the right to not hire people who refuse to fly. If they decide that keeping him on payroll is not worthwhile, for whatever reason, then the courts should have no authority to override that decision, just as the courts should have no authority to force an employee who wants to quit to keep a job nonetheless.

  • Stephen P

    This seems more like the employer refusing to give someone a day off for a religious holiday, and then firing them, which is (in USA) and should be illegal.

    I’m not sure I agree that that should necessarily be illegal. There are businesses which take a substantial part of their annual income in a period of just a few weeks, or even just a few days. It is understood in such businesses that during that period you do not take days off, and it would be entirely reasonable if someone was sacked for doing so.

    But of course any such situation should be made clear at the time someone is hired. Similarly, if someone insists that they be allowed to take days off at particular times – whether for religious reasons or not – they should say that at the time they are hired.

  • Tizzle

    Hmm. Perhaps I shouldn’t paraphrase other blogs I read a long time ago before I post something. I’m going to look up reductio ad absurdum and slippery slope, because it sounded like a fallacy to me. Maybe I should look up fallacy while I’m at it. 🙂

    Miko, your comment is capitalistic, as I’m reading it. As in, government shouldn’t be involved in telling business what to do. Maybe you’re right, and maybe it’s completely ridiculous to call belief in climate change “religious”/covered under beliefs/however they put it exactly.

    I think applied law is fascinating, and I don’t know where the line should be drawn with courts vs. business, etc. There are bound to be silly cases on the border of that line, wherever it is drawn.

  • Tizzle

    @Stephen P.

    Certainly I wouldn’t take a job that interfered with my beliefs, if I knew it did (this being easy for me, as I have few). Taking a job which interfered, and then suing them after the fact, would be disingenuous. Sounds like Christian pharmacists. But not traveling by airplane seems like something one could get around. There could very easily be more to this story. As in, he sounds like a prat, whom it’s possible no one wanted around.

    I had a sh*t job once that wouldn’t let me take one day off, when I asked 4 weeks ahead of time. I had a friend coming in town, and wanted to spend a day with her. So I waited two weeks, and gave my notice. Jerks.

  • Jesse Galef

    Christopher Fraser –

    I didn’t intend to alienate anyone, and I’m sorry if I did. My intention was to point out that their laws are different – our conception of secularism wouldn’t result in this situation. Isn’t it a fascinating question about how to protect religious liberty though?

    The law itself is from 2003, and was far too long for me to read all the way through. If you have any insight into it, I’d love to hear what you know about it. Thanks!

  • Edmond

    And if Mr. Nicholson needs to travel to the US, how much better for the environment is the weeks-long voyage by ship compared to the few hours spent on a plane?

  • Richard P

    Maybe this is a good thing.
    Muddy up the pot a bit. Make any kind of obsession a “genuinely held philosophical belief”.
    This will help in lowering peoples reverence of religion. Instead of trying to move religion into the annuls of superstition,(where it belongs) we can move superstition into the delusional scope of religion and degrade its monopoly as an acceptable delusion. Kind of rot it from within.

  • gribblethemunchkin

    I’m living this story. Essentially he said, i won’t fly due to my belief system. When challenged that environmentalism isn’t a belief system he correctly proved in court that it is indeed a belief system and in fact is based on fact and evidence rather than iron age myths, making it a better system than religion which is protected.

    As for not taking a job you know you can’t/won’t do, i agree. However, companies should make reasonable allowances to account for peoples beliefs and disabilities. e.g. if you are muslim, your employer should give you a place to pray at required times. If you are wheelchair bound, your employer shouldn’t be asking you to climb ladders.

    In situations where your circumstances change, the company should give you the required help or try to find a different job within the company that you can do. e.g. if you were a roofer but got hit by a car and paralysed below the waist, a company should move you to an admin role if a) it has one going, and b) you want it and c) you are capable of doing it.

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