Ethical veganism is a philosophical belief subject to protection under the Equality Act 2010
Employment tribunal judge was 'overwhelmingly' satisfied that ethical veganism met the necessary tests.
Religion and belief is one of the nine protected characteristics set out in the Equality Act 2010 (the Act). A belief means any religious or philosophical belief and includes a lack of belief. However philosophical belief is not defined in the Act. Courts and tribunals have therefore sought to test the concept and set out what a claimant must show for a 'philosophical belief' to be established for the purposes of the Act.
Case law has identified several key markers: i) the belief must be genuinely held; ii) it must be a 'belief' and not just an opinion or view based on the present state of information; iii) it must relate to a 'weighty and substantial' aspect of human life and behaviour; iv) the belief must be sufficiently cogent, serious, coherent and important; and v) the belief must be worthy of respect in a democratic society and not incompatible with human dignity or conflict with the fundamental rights of others.
Judgments in philosophical belief cases have broadly suggested that a belief in a political philosophy or doctrine might qualify and that a philosophical belief may be based on science, but they have also specifically accepted beliefs in Scottish independence, anti-fox hunting and anti-hare coursing to be protected as philosophical beliefs.
Vegetarianism has qualified as a protected belief where it is linked to a personal code of ethics and to following the teachings of Hinduism and Vaishnavism, although in that particular case, the vegetarianism was in the context of manifesting a religious belief. In contrast, a recent case held that vegetarianism, as an option, was not itself a protected characteristic given its lack of coherence, in terms that some may simply become vegetarian as a lifestyle choice whilst others may do so for medical reasons.
An employment tribunal has recently considered the issue whether ethical veganism is protected as a belief under the Act.
Case details: Casamitjana v League Against Cruel Sports (as yet unreported)
Mr Casamitjana is an ethical vegan, meaning he not only follows a vegan diet but he opposes the use of animals for any purpose. This informs many aspects of his life from his diet and what products he wears or uses to how he travels and so on.
Mr Casamitjana enquired about his employer's pension funds and concluded that funds were invested (in his view) unethically in companies which harmed animals, offending his beliefs.
After informing LACS about this, Mr Casamitjana set about making alternative arrangements for his pension to be invested in ethical funds. He believed that his discovery would similarly offend his colleagues, suspecting they were unaware of how their pension funds were invested.
Despite LACS's repeated instructions not to do so Mr Casamitjana sent an email to all of LACS's staff notifying them of his discovery and providing a table, of his own creation, which set out alternative fund options. LACS viewed Mr Casamitjana's email as providing financial advice to colleagues in breach of an express and repeat instruction not to do so.
Mr Casamitjana was subsequently dismissed for gross misconduct and he brought claims for indirect discrimination, direct discrimination, harassment and victimisation as a result of his belief in ethical veganism.
One key question was therefore whether ethical veganism is a philosophical belief for the purposes of protected characteristics under the Equality Act.
The employment tribunal judge ruled that Mr Casamitjana's belief in ethical veganism met the tests set out above; that they were 'important' and 'worthy' of respect in a democratic society and did not infringe on the rights of others. Ethical veganism is therefore, at least as presented in Mr Casamitjana's case, a philosophical belief for the purposes of protected characteristics within the Equality Act.
This case has yet to determine whether or not Mr Casamitjana's dismissal was discriminatory on the basis of his ethical veganism. LACS maintains that Mr Casamitjana's beliefs were irrelevant to his dismissal.
It will not be lost on readers that this case has appeared as one element in a wider conversation on veganism. With a number of food outlets and individuals pledging to take part in 'Veganuary' the topic is particularly prominent at this moment, and sits in the wider context of the debate around climate change and environmental issues which have increasingly dominated the news and public debate in the last 18 months.
This is a first instance decision and may be appealed. However, this case demonstrates a tribunal's readiness to place ethical veganism within the remit of the protections contained in the Equality Act and means employers will, for now, need to consider ethical veganism in much the same way they do other protected characteristics.
If you would like to discuss any aspect of this article further, please contact Michael Crowther or any other member of the employment team on 0113 244 6100.
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The information in this article is necessarily of a general nature. Specific advice should be sought for specific situations. If you have any queries or need any legal advice please feel free to contact Wrigleys Solicitors.