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Ethical Veganism akin to religion in the UK after landmark ruling17 January 2020

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Background

Ethical vegans avoid the exploitation of animals as far as is practicable and possible. This includes eating a plant-based diet, not wearing clothing made from wool or leather and not using products tested on animals. They also seek to avoid exploiting animals in other ways, such as only adopting rescue animals as pets and not visiting zoos (other than for campaigning purposes).

"His commitment to ethical veganism is such that he avoids taking the bus to avoid "accidental crashes with insects or birds.""

Jordi Casamitjana Costa (“J”), a vegan activist and animal rights campaigner, argued that the League Against Cruel Sports’ decision to dismiss him was discriminatory. He claimed that he lost his job at the animal welfare charity after he informed other employees that its pension fund invested in firms involved in animal testing. The League contends J was dismissed for gross misconduct and this will be determined at a later hearing.

J describes his ethical veganism as “much more than just not eating food with animal ingredients, it’s a philosophy and a belief system which encompasses most aspects of my life.” His commitment to ethical veganism is such that he avoids taking the bus to avoid “accidental crashes with insects or birds”.

The Equality Act 2010

“Religion or belief” is one of nine “protected characteristics” covered by the Equality Act 2010 (the “Act”). It is unlawful for an employer to treat an employee less favourably than others because of their religion or belief. For ethical veganism to qualify as a philosophical belief under the Act it needed to meet the following criteria:

  • be genuinely held;
  • be a belief as to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour;
  • attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance;
  • be worthy of respect in a democratic society, not be incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others; and
  • be a belief, not an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available.

Ruling

The Judge ruled that ethical veganism was “important” and “worthy” of respect in a democratic society. He also stated, “I am satisfied overwhelmingly that ethical veganism does constitute a philosophical belief”.

Last year, in Conisbee v Crossley Farms Ltd, an Employment Tribunal ruled that being vegetarian was not protected under the Act. Vegetarianism was not a sufficiently cogent belief to qualify for protection as there are many reasons why people might not eat meat including personal taste, lifestyle, health, or concerns about the way animals are reared. Further, vegetarianism was held to be an opinion and not satisfying the requirement to relate to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour. Conisbee went on to state that veganism could be considered differently as there is a “clear cogency and cohesion in vegan belief”, and the ruling in Casamitjana Costa has confirmed this is true for ethical veganism.

Comment and Implications

The decision is not binding on other Employment Tribunals, though the decision will be persuasive authority. The League is highly unlikely to appeal the decision given it does not contest that J’s ethical veganism is a protected characteristic under the Act. Even if the decision were to be appealed, in our view it is likely the decision would be upheld.

The decision applies to “ethical veganism” only, and not veganism adopted purely for health reasons or because it is fashionable.

The decision confirms that ethical vegans are protected against direct and indirect discrimination, harassment and victimisation. Discriminating against workers because of their belief in ethical veganism is prohibited in the same way it is illegal to discriminate because of religion or other protected characteristics such as gender, race, or sexual orientation.

The widespread media coverage of the decision will have raised awareness that philosophical beliefs are protected under the Act, and this may well increase the number of discrimination claims before the Employment Tribunal.

"This case is a helpful reminder that there should be more emphasis on preventing discrimination because of philosophical belief."

It will be interesting to see which beliefs are argued in future to be philosophical beliefs pursuant to the Act and which arguments succeed. To date, a belief in Scottish independence, climate change, anti-fox hunting, and the “higher purpose” of public service broadcasting have all been held to be capable of being philosophical beliefs. In contrast, a belief that a poppy should be worn in early November, the right for an individual to own the copyright and moral rights of their creative works and output, vegetarianism, and that a person cannot chose their gender have all been held not to qualify as philosophical beliefs under the Act.

Employers should review their policies and procedures to ensure that they can be justified and are proportionate so as to reduce the risk of successful claims for indirect discrimination (for example, they should consider whether there should be a vegan option in the staff canteen).

Employers’ staff policies have conventionally focused on preventing discrimination because of sex, disability or religion. This case is a helpful reminder that there should be more emphasis on preventing discrimination because of philosophical belief. To this effect, employers may also wish to consider including respect for the philosophical beliefs of others in any equality and diversity training they provide to staff.

Should you wish to discuss any of the issues raised in this article, please do not hesitate to get in touch with Anna Robinson or Chris Warwick-Evans or your usual contact at Watson Farley & Williams.

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