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Ethical veganism recognised as a "philosophical belief"

View profile for Laura Hill
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Last week, an Employment Tribunal ruled that “ethical veganism” constitutes a philosophical belief and ethical vegans stand to be protected by the Equality Act 2010 (“EqA 2010”). The case of Casamitjana v League Against Cruel Sports.

The law

Currently, the EqA 2010 gives individuals protection from discrimination in respect of nine protected characteristics, one of which being protection from “religion or belief” discrimination.

What constitutes a “belief” has been considered by the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) in Grainger plc and others v Nicholson 2010 and has been summarised in the following principles:

  1.  the belief must be genuinely held;
  2.  it must be a belief, not an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available;
  3.  it must attain a certain level of “cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance”;
  4.  it must be worthy of respect in a democratic society, not be incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the   fundamental rights of others;
  5.  it must "have a similar status or cogency to a religious belief".  However, it need not "allude to a fully-fledged system of   thought"; and
  6.  it need not be shared by others.

Without a specified list of “beliefs” which are covered by the legislation, the tribunals consider each case on its facts.

Casamitjana v League Against Cruel Sports

Mr Casamitjana is an ethical vegan. An ethical vegan is someone who excludes all forms of animal product and exploitation from their lifestyle. This includes avoiding eating anything made from animal products as well as avoiding wearing clothing made from wool and using products made by companies who carry out testing on animals.

Mr Casamitjana raised concerns with his employer that his pension fund was being invested in companies involved in animal testing. Mr Casamitjana was dismissed, his employer says for gross misconduct; he says it was because of his ethical veganism.

The first hearing was only to determine the preliminary issue of whether ethical veganism could constitute a protected belief (which was, in fact, a matter which was not in issue between the parties). The full trial, which will commence on 24 February 2020, is to determine whether Mr Casamitjana was unfairly dismissed.

Therefore, despite various media sources confirming that “Mr Casamitjana has won”, there has not yet been a ruling on his dismissal.

What does this mean?

This finding by an Employment Tribunal does not amount to binding precedent, but it is the first case to have decided the position on ethical veganism.

It is not unsurprising given cases in past years such as Grainger PLC and others v Nicholson [2010] where the “belief of combatting man-made climate change” was considered to be a belief capable of protection. The tribunal in Grainger considered that beliefs such as “pacifism, communism, free-market capitalism and vegetarianism” may also be capable of protection.

Since then, vegetarianism has been considered in Tumenaite v PS Coho Centre Administration Ltd and another and was held not to be a belief qualifying for protection.

Comment

Case law suggests a move towards accepting a greater variance of what could constitute a philosophical belief.

While it is not a binding ruling, it does give guidance to employers as to the likely treatment of ethical veganism in any future employment tribunal case. Therefore, it is important to consider the implications as an employer. It is important to mention that ethical veganism goes further than veganism (or indeed vegetarianism) and it is the extent to which ethical veganism impacts an individual’s life choices which likely resulted in the decision we saw in the tribunal.

It is also important to mention that unlike with other protected characteristics (for example, a disability), there is no requirement to make reasonable adjustments for a belief. However, there is a requirement not to directly or indirectly discriminate against someone because of their belief and/or to harass someone because of their belief.

It would be useful as an employer to try to ensure your employees are aware of the importance of not making their colleagues feel segregated or bullied because of their views (whether that be ethical veganism or other views). Training on appropriate communication within the workplace can be a good way to help keep things at the forefront of employees' minds.

In terms of this decision in particular, it would help to start thinking about areas where your business might need to think about providing alternatives. For example, using alternative vegan equipment, wool-free uniforms and vegan toiletries to protect themselves from future claims.

Generally, providing employers are acting in a reasonable and tolerant way to their employees' beliefs, the impact on businesses should be minimal. Some people are concerned this ruling acts as “opening the floodgates” but others see this ruling as simply a reflection of the country being a progressive society.

If in doubt, give our employment law team a call.

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