REUTERS | Denis Balibouse

Should vegans have the same legal protection as religious people?

Later this month the employment tribunal is due to make a long-awaited preliminary hearing decision in Casamitjana v League Against Cruel Sports on whether ethical veganism is a protected belief under the Equality Act 2010 (EqA 2010). 

The EqA 2010 does not contain express protection for ethical vegans. However Mr Casamitjanas case is that it constitutes a philosophical belief in respect of which discrimination is unlawful under the EqA 2010. More specifically, he is claiming that he was dismissed because he challenged his employers pension fund investments in firms involved with animal testing (against his ethical vegan beliefs). The League conversely says that he was dismissed for gross misconduct. 

Determining what constitutes a protected philosophical belief 

The EqA 2010 does not define what amounts to a philosophical belief. However, a number of cases have tested the concept. In summary, based on guidance from the EAT, an individual must establish that: 

  •  The belief is genuinely held by him or her. 
  • The belief is a belief, as opposed to merely an opinion or view based on current information. 
  • The belief relates to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour. 
  • The belief has a certain level of cogency, seriousness and importance. 
  • The belief is worthy of respect in a democratic society and is not incompatible with human dignity or rights. 

While the employer in this case is not a public body, note that veganism is already considered a protected belief under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) 

Article 9 provides a right to freedom of thought, belief and religion. As such, all public authorities and other bodies carrying out public functions must act in accordance with the ECHR. This means that ethical vegans are already protected if discriminated against by public bodies or quasi-public bodies. 

The Equality and Human Rights Commission also specifically cites veganism as an example of a non-religious belief, which falls within the umbrella of protection. 

Cases on protected philosophical belief 

In Grainger plc and others v Nicholson [2010] ICR 360, Mr Justice Burton found in favour of Mr Nicholson who claimed he had been unfairly dismissed after refusing to take a flight for a meeting he claimed was not sufficiently important to warrant the travel, on the basis of his belief about the importance of combatting man-made climate change. It was also suggested by Mr Justice Burton in that case that other beliefs (such as pacifism, communism, free-market capitalism and vegetarianism) may also be capable of protection. Indeed, other beliefs found to warrant protection by the tribunals are a strong belief in anti-fox hunting and anti-hare coursing and a belief in Scottish independence. 

In Tumenaite v PS Coho Centre Administration Ltd and another ET/2204607/2018, the tribunal found that Ms Tumenaites vegetarianism, which she argued was part of her personal code of ethics, was a philosophical belief. Her vegetarianism was also part of her following the basic spiritual teachings of Hinduism and Vaishnavism. The connection with religious belief may explain why this was not contested by the respondent and found quite matter-of-factly by the judge to constitute a protected belief (this is essentially a footnote in the judgment issued in this case). 

The recent decision of the employment tribunal in Conisbee v Crossley Farms Ltd  and others ET/3335357/2018 may at first glance dent Mr Casamitjanas prospects. While also not a binding decision, Mr Conisbees vegetarianism was held not to be a belief qualifying for protection under the EqA 2010. Specific reasons given were that: 

  • Essentially vegetarianism did not concern a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour, but was rather a life-type choice and merely a personal view that this would be a better way to live.  
  • It did not have a sufficient level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance (and certainly not on a similar status to religion) as people have many different reasons for being vegetarian (for example, lifestyle, health, personal taste, concern for animals, climate change and so on).  

However, in relation to the cogency and cohesion point, the judge contrasted vegetarianism with veganism, and Mr Casamitjanas lawyers will no doubt build on and develop this at his hearing. 

We wait for further news on this matter in the coming weeks. Certainly, over half a million vegans in the UK would welcome the recognition and weight this would add to what they regard as a way of life and the protection at work that this would bring.  

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