Bill Shankly, the first great manager of Liverpool FC, is quoted as saying: ‘Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.’ Anyone with a season ticket, or who is related to someone with a season ticket, will appreciate that sentiment. Football fandom can seem like a pretty strong and forceful belief when viewed from the outside, especially on match days. But is supporting a football team a philosophical belief, on a par with other religious and philosophical beliefs, which attracts protection from discrimination under the Equality Act 2010? Not according to the employment tribunal at a preliminary hearing in McClung v Doosan Babcock.
The employee had been a Rangers fan for 42 years. He was a club member and received annual birthday cards. He attended home matches at least twice a month and away games when he could. He spent a large proportion of his disposable income on going to matches or watching them on Sky Sports. He believed his support of Rangers was a way of life and as important to him as attending church is for religious people. He said it was a philosophical belief, a protected characteristic under the Equality Act.
The employment tribunal did not agree. Although his belief was genuinely held, it did not meet the other essential criteria for a protected belief set down in the case of Grainger v Nicholson. Support for a football club – an active interest in it and a desire for them to win – is different from a belief. The tribunal said the employee’s support for Rangers was like supporting a political party which case law has confirmed is not capable of being a protected philosophical belief. Being a football fan is a lifestyle choice, not a belief about a weighty or substantial aspect of human life. The employee’s belief lacked the required cogency, cohesion and importance. It didn’t warrant the same respect in a democratic society as matters such as ethical veganism.
This might be disappointing for football fans but is unsurprising bearing in mind the previous case law on the kinds of belief that can and cannot be protected. It might stop a potential discrimination claim in its tracks for Mr McClung, but it won’t stop him celebrating his belief in Rangers in the stands on a Saturday afternoon.
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