According to media reports Asda have summarily dismissed an employee (that is, have determined he has committed an act of gross misconduct) for sharing a clip on social media of Billy Connolly criticising religion (and, as is his normal form, doing it with an expletive laden lexicon). The clip in question is apparently this (although it may have been longer):
The National Secular Society (not without reason) is kicking up a fuss about the case. Stephen Evans, speaking for the NSS, is quoted as saying
Sharing a sketch which mocks religious ideas and suicide bombers on social media should not be grounds for dismissal. Brian Leach has good reason to feel aggrieved and many other British citizens have good reason to feel concern about what this could mean for their own freedom of expression.
Any actions employers take to protect their reputations must be proportionate. We are therefore keen to explore what options may be open to Mr Leach to redress this situation.
Regardless of what happens next, this episode should make us sit up and take notice of the power we give to religious offence-takers, particularly in the social media age.
When I first read the story I had assumed there must be more to the story but on the basis of the information provided it looks like the story is just as it is reported (the best account I have seen is in Coffee House). The employee, a meeter and greeter for the supermarket, appears to have shared the expletive laden clip of Connolly on social media mocking Islam and Christianity, which, presumably some of his work colleagues have access to as a friend/follower of employee. One of those colleagues took offense and complained to the employer that the clip was offensive to his or her faith. The employer determined that sharing material that mocked and criticised two major world religions, specifically Islam and Christianity, was contrary to its social media policy and may bring the company into disrepute (as indeed it has, but perhaps not the way Asda envisaged!)
There is a possibility there is more to the case. Perhaps the employee made some comments when sharing the clip that were inappropriate, perhaps he shared the clip during working hours, or perhaps there was some other feature that made this much more serious than just sharing a social media post.
But, if not, then it is difficult to see how this decision, even with the very pro-employer range of reasonable responses test, can be be seen as anything other than a car crash of a decision that has not only harmed Asda’s reputation but may well have exposed it to completely unnecessary legal risk.
Aside from any unfair dismissal claims (and surely Asda will back down?) it is not hard to see that atheism, or a belief that all religions should be subject to satire and criticism, is itself potentially a belief that is a protected characteristic. A practice of Asda’s that social media commentary critical of religion, or even mocking religion, that is shared by employees should be subject to disciplinary sanction may itself indirectly discriminate Asda against atheists and similar beliefs. As we have seen before in a not entirely dissimilar context, ostensibly trivial acts designed to impede religious or belief expression can have major legal repercussions (and at least in Ewieida ECHR challenge it concerned what an employee did while on the clock rather than in their own time).