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Harassment on grounds of religion?

Posted on 26th February 2013
Case law

"Can anyone tell what's happening to the fucking Pope?"

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Julie Temple Julie
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there was no anti-catholic purpose or ill-intention in the question posed

Heafield ​v Times Newspapers Ltd

The facts

Mr H is Roman Catholic. In 2010 he was working as a sub-editor for the Times during the Pope's visit to the UK. Mr H heard one of the newsroom editors, a Mr Wilson ('Mr W'), shout across the room to others: "Can anyone tell what's happening to the fucking Pope?" The question was asked by Mr W to the senior production executives as he was chasing the production of a story about the Pope relating to allegations that he had protected a paedophile priest.

Mr H was offended and upset by what he heard and after his internal complaint was not dealt with he brought a claim for harassment on the grounds of his religious belief.

The decision

In upholding the decision of the Employment Tribunal that there had been no harassment, the EAT held that although Mr W's question constituted unwanted conduct, the purpose had not been to create an adverse environment for Mr H. Mr W did not know that Mr H was a Catholic, nor was the statement directed at him.

The EAT agreed that on the evidence there was no anti-catholic purpose or ill-intention in the question posed by Mr W. What he said was caused by his irritation caused by the late delivery of the story. In an ideal world Mr W should not have used an expletive in the same sentence talking about the Pope but the EAT said that people sometimes use bad language thoughtlessly. A reasonable person would have understood this and made an allowance for it. 

The EAT stressed that not every discriminatory slanted adverse comment or conduct will amount to harassment or victimisation. Isolated, trivial or one off statements will invariably not qualify, especially if it was clear that any offence was unintended.

In practice

This decision demonstrates the employment tribunal's desire to avoid encouraging a culture of over-sensitive workers where liability arises from every unfortunate phrase spoken in the workplace. 

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