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Veganism and Equality

Veganuary was boosted this year by the wave of press coverage around vegans’ ‘newly acquired’ Equality Act protection.

Mr Casamitjana had been dismissed by his employer, The League Against Cruel Sports. He brought various claims, including for discrimination, arguing that dismissal was connected to his ethical veganism. The employer disputed that. It said he was dismissed for gross misconduct.

For his discrimination claim to progress, Mr Casamitjana needed to establish that his ethical veganism was a ‘philosophical belief’ and therefore a protected characteristic under the Equality Act.

What is a philosophical belief?

A philosophical belief is a genuinely held belief that:

  • is more than a mere opinion or viewpoint;
  • relates to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour;
  • has a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance;
  • is worthy of respect in a democratic society;
  • is not incompatible with human rights or dignity.

The courts have ruled on various cases in the past, finding for example that an anti-fox hunting belief (a belief in the sanctity of life) was a philosophical belief, as was a belief in climate change. Conversely, vegetarianism has been held not to qualify.

But veganism is something different, and ethical veganism is different again. The tribunal found in Mr Casamitjana’s favour, hence the bold headlines that some have interpreted as opening up Equality Act protection to all vegans. That broad conclusion is not the reality. While Mr Casamitjana’s particular belief set was sufficient to qualify as a protected characteristic, other vegans whose lifestyles are not influenced to same extent as Mr Casamitjana’s may fall short. He is a particularly devoted ethical vegan whose strong principles influence every aspect of his life and his daily choices. For example, he is said to prefer to travel by tube rather than by bus because fewer insects are killed that way. He avoids sitting on leather seats. He doesn’t allow non-vegan food to be brought into his home. His beliefs clearly have a major impact on his life, whereas another vegan and perhaps even another ethical vegan may not choose to live their life as he does.

So, what the tribunal actually decided is that this person’s ethical veganism amounted to a philosophical belief. Couple that with the fact that this particular tribunal’s decision does not bind other tribunals (another tribunal might decide something different in a similar case) and there is a good argument that Mr Casamitjana’s case does not have the far-reaching impact some might think it has.

What his case has done, however, is highlight that employers should have a good grasp of the types of strongly held beliefs that are alive and kicking in the workplace. Not all will count as philosophical beliefs; that comes down to whether the individual can satisfy the definition (see above). But some will, and that means employers will be under a duty to avoid belief-based discrimination happening – whether that’s in the form of colleagues’ teasing or other unwanted conduct that could amount to harassment, or not catering for vegan employees at the work party. In reality, there is a huge range of potential discrimination that could take place, hinging on less favourable treatment because of the philosophical belief.

That is what Mr Casamitjana’s must now prove: that he was discriminated against because of his belief – something that requires a whole other set of considerations. And this should be of comfort to employers worried about what the Casamitjana decision means on a practical level. Having a philosophical belief is one thing; showing that there was less favourable treatment because of that philosophical belief is another.

That is not to diminish the significance of this decision for ethical vegans, and for their employers. Extra care should be taken to make sure that needs are properly catered for at work and beliefs properly respected. There is school of thought that tolerant, inclusive workplaces should be doing that anyway, in respect of all employees – even those who fall outside the protection of the Equality Act.

To talk to us about discrimination, or any aspect of employment law, contact Meredith Hurst on 0207 426 4903 or at Meredith.Hurst@thomasmansfield.com.