A British Airways pilot banned from flying for refusing to wear a Covid facemask during the pandemic because he claimed to have the 'right to breathe freely' has lost his bid to sue the airline for discrimination.
Peter Burch tried to claim he was 'a sovereign being who has a right to breathe freely' and that he should not be subjected to 'arbitrary and pointless' rules.
The experienced senior first officer argued that his stance against wearing a mask was the equivalent to a religious belief and he should be legally protected as a result.
But an employment tribunal judge ruled it could not qualify as it potentially infringed on the 'fundamental' human rights of others who could catch a disease through his refusal to mask up.
As a result his claims of discrimination and harassment against BA were dismissed.
Experienced senior first officer Peter Burch tried to sue British Airways for discrimination when the airline banned him from flying when he refused to wear a mask during hte pandemic
The Watford tribunal heard Mr Burch had worked for the airline since 1996, first as a short-haul flight captain and then as a long-haul senior first officer where he flew Boeing 747s.
As a result of the pandemic in 2020, BA furloughed a number of pilots, who were paid a reduced salary as they were not required to fly, the hearing was told.
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After 20 months on reduced pay, Mr Burch was invited to return to work but had to complete a course which included a training flight in February 2022 to Miami.
However, the night before the flight, he had a 'major stress reaction' after being sent a copy of the airline's policy by his training captain requiring him to wear a mask on board.
He was 'so stressed' he called in sick.
For his next scheduled training duty, Mr Burch reported to work without a mask, claiming he was 'exempt' from wearing one.
This was rejected by his training captain, but when Mr Burch refused to comply, he was 'stood down' and placed on unpaid leave, it was heard.
In a letter to his manager in February 2022, he said he didn't want to be 'forced' to wear a mask and that British Airways had a 'duty of care' to him.
The pilot said he didn't want to face any 'further humiliation' from another line captain or 'petty authoritarian' who would try to infringe his 'right to be treated with dignity and respect whilst at work'.
Mr Burch then took BA to the tribunal claiming discrimination, arguing that his anti-mask stance should be protected under equality laws.
'In July 2020, the government mandated the wearing of face masks in indoor public places. I was distressed by this new regulation,' he said.
But an employment tribunal judge ruled it could not qualify as it potentially infringed on the 'fundamental' human rights of others who could catch a disease through his refusal to mask up (stock picture of people wearing face masks at Heathrow Airport)
'I understood this mandate to be an extraordinary regulation in the UK and, like all other COVID-19 restrictions and mandates, alien to my understanding as to what it is to live in a liberal democracy.
'My claim here is that I have an inherent right to 'breathe freely', a phrase I use both metaphorically and literally.'
Mr Burch believed that as a 'sovereign being who has a right to breathe freely and should not be subjected to arbitrary and pointless rules which have prevented [him] from so doing, whilst having no basis in science and for which there is no supporting evidence'.
Giving evidence at a preliminary hearing, Mr Burch said of his views: 'I formed the belief based on the fact no-one wore a mask ever in the entirety of human existence.
'I believe if cloth masks stopped the transmission of disease, humans would have worked that out when cloth was first invented.
'We breathe the air to keep healthy.'
Mr Burch told the hearing he had 'dedicated himself' to his belief, and 'hadn't wavered' by 'routinely' refusing to wear a mask.
'I knew that my belief was real,' he said.
'It was causing me anxiety and personal harm to be told to wear a mask - there are government exemptions.'
However, Employment Judge Elizabeth Coll ruled his stance did 'not amount to a philosophical belief' as he had admitted his position could change if he was presented with scientific evidence that masks were an effective way to prevent the spread of disease.
She described position as 'a narrow belief'.
'The claimed belief does not affect how he lives his life or perceives the world,' she said.
'It does not relate to other aspects of daily living such as diet, clothing, consumption, travel, financial needs and resources, and relationships.
'It is not at the heart of interaction between humans. The belief was referred to and was centred on [Mr Burch] himself and the one step he was taking (i.e. not wearing a mask) in order to ensure that one facet of breathing without disturbance or restriction was preserved.'
She said a belief must be 'more than a collection of concepts'.
She added that Mr Burch would not know if he were infected with Covid and could therefore come into contact with a vulnerable person without knowing.
For a belief to be recognised under equality laws, adhering to it cannot infringe on other people's rights, the hearing was told.
Refusing to wear a mask and passing on Covid could potentially affect someone else's right to life, Judge Coll said.
Dismissing his claim, she concluded: '[Mr Burch] seems to recognise that his exercising his human rights in relation to not wearing a mask could cause a problem to those who were vulnerable.
'His belief is therefore in conflict with the fundamental rights of others, such as Article 2, right to life (defined as 'no-one shall be deprived of his life intentionally').'