· Features

If Jedi is a religion, poking fun at its adherents could be discriminatory

PC Pam Fleming has been in the news lately. She is the first police officer to publicly admit to being a Jedi. Eight other police officers at Strathclyde Police have listed their religion as Jedi in a voluntary diversity survey.

In 2001, there was a campaign to encourage citizens of English-speaking countries to record their religion as Jedi, claiming that if enough people stated Jedi as their religion in the Census Form, the Government would have to acknowledge it as a recognised religion. In Scotland, over 14,000 people stated their religion as Jedi. In England and Wales, 390,127 gave their response as Jedi, surpassing Sikhism, Judaism and Buddhism, thereby making it the fourth-largest reported religion.  

Just what can constitute a religion or belief for employment law purposes and when can the treatment of an adherent be classed as discriminatory?

The original definition of ‘religion or belief' in the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003 was amended in April 2007 to ‘any religion' or ‘any religious or philosophical belief' and included references to a lack of religion or belief.  

Guidance issued by the Government indicates that ‘any religion' is intended to be interpreted widely and in line with the freedom of religion guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and includes a number of factors, such as:

  • whether there is collective worship
  • whether there is a clear belief system
  • whether there is a profound belief affecting way of life or view of the world

This would include those religions widely recognised in Great Britain, such as Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism and Jainism. The European Court of Justice has also recognised other collective religions, including Druidism and the Church of Scientology.

The main limitation on what constitutes a ‘religion' for the purposes of article 9 of the ECHR is that it must have a clear structure and belief system. Even if a belief does not constitute a religion for these purposes, it may constitute a religious belief. In Harris vs NKL Automotive Ltd [EAT/0134/07] the court accepted that Rastafarianism qualified as a philosophical belief, similar to a religious belief.  In Campbell and Cosans vs UK (1982) 4 EHRR, the ECHR said that to qualify for protection, beliefs must be more than simply opinions or ideas. The belief must attain a degree of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance and must be worthy of respect in a democratic society.

In the US, three independent churches based on a Jedi religion exist. The Temple of the Jedi Order was incorporated in Texas in 2005 as a non-profit religious corporation and its ministers may legally conduct marriages. In 2007, two brothers set up a 30-member Jedi church in Anglesey, Wales, based on improving life using Jedi principles.

Jedi is yet to be recognised by the UK courts as a religion. However, if PC Fleming and her Jedi colleagues can show a clear structure and belief system, that their belief occupies a place in their lives similar to that filled by the god or gods of others holding an accepted religion and that their belief has attained a level of seriousness, they will be afforded the protection offered by the Regulations. The employer must not discriminate on the grounds of their religion either directly or indirectly and must not victimise or harass on the grounds of their religion. Those afforded protection include employees, workers, applicants and in some cases, former employees or workers.  

Take the case of an employee who is continually teased by her colleagues about her Jedi convictions. She finds such teasing to be distressing and offensive and complains to her line manager who fails to address the matter, claiming it to be harmless fun. If the employee can show that Jedi fulfils the definition for a religion, she has a potential claim for harassment on the grounds of her religion or belief. Both the company and her colleagues may be liable for compensation.

The attitude toward PC Fleming's confession may currently be one of light-hearted cynicism, but one cannot help but speculate about the scepticism shown to the adherents of any new religion before it attains a modicum of respectability. After all, can over 400,000 people be wrong?

Philip Pepper is an associate and Kim Abbott is a solicitor in Weightmans' employment team