No, this is nothing to do with the Pope’s resignation last week. In Heafield v Times Newspaper Ltd, Mr Heafield pursued claims for harassment on the grounds of his religion on the basis that his line manager’s comment “can anyone tell me what’s happening to the f***ing pope”, which was shouted in a pressured newsroom, 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, successfully argued at the tribunal that the words were not capable of amounting to harassment and that the words spoken were not spoken on the grounds of religion or belief (for a more detailed description of this case see our earlier blog about this case).
Mr Heafield appealed the tribunal’s decision.
The EAT (Underhill J, sitting alone) refused to allow Mr Heafield`s appeal to proceed, holding that the tribunal`s decision was "unarguably correct". He stated:
- The tribunal was plainly right in finding that, to the extent that Mr Heafield felt his dignity to be violated or that an adverse environment had been created, that was not a reasonable reaction to his line manager’s comment. The comment was "not ill-intentioned or anti-Catholic or directed at the Pope or at Catholics". In a perfect world, an expletive in a sentence about the Pope would not have been used, as this might be "taken as disrespectful by a pious Catholic of tender sensibilities". Nevertheless, people are not perfect and sometimes use bad language thoughtlessly. A reasonable person in Mr Heafield`s position would have understood that and made allowances for it.
- If the tribunal had held that, the context in which the comment was made meant the line manager’s conduct could not have amounted to harassment, then it would have been in error. However, the tribunal did not make this finding. It simply said that the context in which Mr Wilson made his comment was relevant to its effect, such that it was not reasonable for Mr Heafield to feel that his dignity had been violated or that he had been subjected to an adverse environment.
This case is a reminder that the context in which offensive words are spoken is all-important.
To read previous blogs on religious discrimination cases please click here.