Is Freemasonry a protected belief for the purposes of employment law? Helen Hall has kindly supplied this guest post on a recent Employment Tribunal case which concluded that it is not.
In Conway v Secretary of State for the Home Department  ET 2205162/2013 Mr Conway was not appointed to Operation Resolve, the criminal investigation into the Hillsborough disaster, because he had been a Freemason – and the Freemasons were one of the groups under investigation. As a result, he brought a claim of discrimination on the basis of religion or belief. A major issue before the Employment Tribunal was whether or not Freemasonry was a “religion or belief” protected by the relevant provisions of the Equality Act 2010.
The Employment Tribunal agreed with the finding of the First-tier Tribunal (Tax) in United Grand Lodge of England v Revenue & Customs  UKFTT 164 (TC) (which was about whether or not whether the United Grand Lodge had aims of a philosophical, philanthropic religious or civic nature for the purposes of VAT law) that, even in light of the widening of the definition of “religion” in R (Hodkin & Anor) v Registrar General of Births, Deaths and Marriages  AC 610, Freemasonry was not a religion. However, it contested the assertion by the First-tier Tribunal in United Grand Lodge  that
“if one tests Freemasonry against [these} criteria: belief in a supernatural being and the acceptance of conduct to give effect to that belief, it seems that Freemasonry – just – falls short”.
On the contrary, concluded the ET: Freemasonry failed totally to meet the definition of religion and did so in a very significant respect:
“Freemasonry does not claim to explain mankind’s place in the universe and relationship with the infinite, but leaves that explanation to the religion of the individual member”.
Freemasonry required members to have a religious belief – but any religious belief would do, provided it included a belief in a supreme being and was compatible with the three “Grand Principles” of Freemasonry: brotherly love, relief of those in distress and truth.
The Grand Principles satisfied the five characteristics set out in Grainger Plc & Ors v Nicholson  UKEAT 0219 09 0311 for non-religious beliefs: a belief that is genuinely held, that is genuinely a belief and not an opinion or viewpoint based on available information, that is about weighty and substantial aspects of human behaviour, that attains a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance, that is worthy of respect in a democratic society and that does not conflict with the fundamental rights of others. Nevertheless, Mr Conway faced an insurmountable problem: he did not hold these beliefs because of his membership of the Freemasons but because of his membership of the Church of Scotland and his Christian upbringing.
He had said that his becoming a Freemason had had no impact upon his life whatsoever. He was therefore in a fundamental difficulty: the relevant beliefs that formed the basis of his claim did not result from Freemasonry. He was not precluded from working on Operation Resolve because of the protected characteristics on which he relied – the religious beliefs that came from his Christian upbringing and which enabled him to subscribe to the three Grand Principles – but because he had been a member of an organisation, the Freemasons, that was itself a subject of the investigation. Furthermore, he did not have those protected characteristics by virtue of his involvement in Freemasonry.
The ET went on to observe that even if its conclusion about the nature of Freemasonry was found to be incorrect, any discrimination could be justified on the basis of a Genuine Occupational Requirement for participation in Operation Resolve. Ensuring that a fair and thorough investigation was carried out – and that it be seen to be carried out – was of great importance where a tragedy had occurred in which the state was alleged to have had some responsibility in depriving citizens of their fundamental right to life under Article 2 ECHR. Excluding current and former Freemasons from participating in the investigation was a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim, given that some parties were claiming that Freemasonry had been implicated in hampering previous investigations. Claim dismissed.
Cite this article as: Helen Hall, “Is Freemasonry a protected belief? – Conway v Secretary of State for the Home Department” in Law & Religion UK, 12 October 2015. http://www.lawandreligionuk.com/2015/10/12/is-freemasonry-a-protected-belief-conway-v-secretary-of-state-for-the-home-department/