“Can anyone tell me what’s happening to the f*****g Pope?”

Yesterday (17 February), Pope Benedict XVI blessed thousands of people outside the Vatican for the first time since he announced his shock retirement. It was his second-last Angelus blessing before he leaves at the end of the month.

A month prior, the EAT had to determine whether the question in the title above, shouted in a pressured newsroom, amounted to harassment on grounds of religion of a Catholic sub-editor present at the time. In Heafield v Times Newspaper Ltd [2013] UKEAT 1305_12_1701 (17 January 2013) Underhill J said it did not.

The Appellant in this case was a casual sub-editor on the Times newspaper working at the Times during the Pope’s visit to the UK in 2010. He is a Roman Catholic.

On the evening of 12 March 2010, one of the editors chasing a delayed article shouted across the newsroom “can anyone tell me what’s happening to the f*****g Pope?”. Twice. The Appellant was offended by what he heard and raised a complaint. He then brought a claim in the Employment Tribunal for harassment and victimisation on the grounds of his religious belief.

The Tribunal dismissed both claims, but the Appellant appealed only against the dismissal of the harassment claim.

The statutory definition of harassment was at the material time contained in regulation 5 of the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003, which reads as follows:

“(1) For the purposes of these Regulations, a person (“A”) subjects another person (“B”) to harassment where, on grounds of religion or belief, A engages in unwanted conduct which has the purpose or effect of -

(a) violating B’s dignity; or
(b) creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for B.

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

It was held that there was no anti-Catholic purpose in what was said, nor was it directed at the Pope or at Catholics. The editor simply wanted the article about the Pope and used bad language because he was irritated and under pressure. If the Appellant felt his dignity to be violated or that an adverse environment had been created, it was held that was not a reasonable reaction.

What do you think?