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"Where`s the Pope?" case - Clarkslegal successfully defends religious discrimination claim

31 October 2012 #Employment


In Heafield v Times Newspaper Ltd, Mr Heafield was a practising catholic although his colleagues did not know this.  He worked as a casual sub-editor for The Times which involved him writing headlines and editing the stories provided by reporters to fit the editor’s specifications.

Before being allocated a headline each story would be given a one word working title.  So for example a story about the Queen would be titled “the Queen.”  In March 2010 The Times was working on a story concerning the Pope allegedly protecting a paedophile priest.  This story was referred to as “the Pope”. 

As the deadline approached for the newspaper to go to print, Mr Heafield’s line manager, shouted across the newsroom: “can anyone tell me what’s happening to the f***ing pope?”   

Mr Heafield pursued claims for harassment on the grounds of his religion on the the basis that Mr Wilson’s comment was intended to deride and insult his religion and in the alternative, the comment was so inherently anti-Catholic that it was reasonable for a practicing Catholic to have experienced this effect.  The newspaper, represented by Clarkslegal LLP, argued that the words were not capable of amounting to harassment and disputed that the words spoken were spoken on the grounds of religion or belief.  In referring to “the Pope”, Mr Wilson was referring to the story so he could equally have said “what’s happening to the f***ing queen?”  

The tribunal accepted the newspaper’s argument and dismissed all of Mr Heafield’s complaints. The tribunal found that it was not reasonable for the comment to have had the effect of creating a hostile, intimidating, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for Mr Heafield.  There was no evidence from which the tribunal could infer that the comment had been made on grounds of religion.

Although this is only a first instance decision, decided before the EqA 2010, it is still very useful to see how the definition of harassment is applied. It is also likely that tribunals following the EqA 2010 will adopt the same approach.

Before the Equality Act 2010 (“EqA 2010”) came into force, discrimination on grounds of religion or belief was prohibited under the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003 (“the Religion or Belief Regulations”).

Regulation 5 of the Religion or Belief Regulations defined harassment as:

1. Unwanted conduct; on the grounds of religion or belief; which had the purpose or effect of:

a)     either violating another person`s dignity; or

b)     creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.

2. Conduct shall be regarded as having the effect specified in paragraph 1 (a) or (b) if, having regard to all the circumstances, including in particular the perception of the victim, it should reasonably be considered as having that effect.

Clarkslegal, specialist Employment lawyers in London, Reading and throughout the Thames Valley.
For further information about this or any other Employment matter please contact Clarkslegal's employment team by email at employmentunit@clarkslegal.com by telephone 020 7539 8000 (London office), 0118 958 5321 (Reading office) or by completing the form on this page.

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