According to Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, it is “possible” that President Donald Trump was sent by God to save Israel from Iran. He added that it was his Christian faith that led him to believe this. He added “I am confident that the Lord is at work here”.
I confess that I felt initial sentiments of despair and frustration when I first read this report on Friday afternoon. This is not a street corner pamphleteer speaking – this is the US Secretary of State. People listen to him. He has a great deal of influence over people.
Nicky Campbell, BBC Radio 5 presenter, whose views I often find echo my own, could bite his tongue no longer. “Oh for fks safe” was his sole comment on Twitter with a link to the BBC news article. Most responses were sympathetic to Mr Campbell’s reaction, but I noted one or two people questioning whether he should really be deriding somebody’s “religious beliefs” in this way.
It prompted me to consider where the boundaries lie between criticising somebody’s views, expressed in the context of their religion, on the one hand and rightly taking people to task over irrational, divisive and dangerous rhetoric on the other hand. As an employment lawyer, I also couldn’t help but consider how this might pan out if such comments were made in a workplace environment.
A person’s religion or belief is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010.
An employee is entitled not to suffer a detriment or be harassed because of their religion or belief. There should be nothing controversial about that.
What amounts to a religion or belief is far more contentious though. Everybody has their own perception of religion and whilst two people might describe themselves as Muslim, as Jewish or as Christians, they could well have very different perceptions from each other of the teachings of their faith.
Guidance from the Equality and Human Rights Commission is helpful when dealing with the thorny issue of what amount to a religious belief. It states that “In the Equality Act religion or belief can mean any religion, for example an organised religion like Christianity, Judaism, Islam or Buddhism, or a smaller religion like Rastafarianism or Paganism, as long as it has a clear structure and belief system.”
Importantly, the Commission adds the following guidance:
The Equality Act also says that a belief must also be worthy of respect in a democratic society and not affect other people’s fundamental rights.
It gives the example of a white supremacist who expresses in the workplace their belief that white people are superior to all other races. Such a person would clearly not be protected from a detriment for expressing their philosophical belief under the Equality Act.
It follows that in my view, Mr Pompeo’s comment was merely an expression of his own personal views. The focus of the comment was on the sending of Donald Trump by the God in which Mr Pompeo believes to protect one nation state from hostility by another nation state. The status of President Trump as such a divine envoy is not, to my knowledge, the doctrine of an organised religion nor could it be said to be a belief worthy of respect in a democratic society.
Evidently Mr Pompeo did not pause to reflect that the man who is this supposed gift from God might not be doing much to preserve our beautiful world that many conservative Republicans believe was created by God.
Isn’t that a bit controversial for an employment lawyer? Can I really say that?
The guidance from the Equality and Human Rights Commission is clear that where an employee believes strongly in man-made climate change and feels that they have a duty to live their life in a way which limits their impact on the earth to help save it for future generations, this would be classed as a belief and protected under the Equality Act. So in exercising our philosophical belief in this way, I and other like minded people are fully entitled to criticise Trump, Pompeo and those who advocate behaviour that will cause irreparable harm to our world.