Is ethical veganism a “philosophical belief” protected under the Equality Act 2010? In December 2018 my colleague, Jessica Clough, reported on the press coverage surrounding Mr Casamitjana’s case. An Employment Tribunal has now reached a conclusion on this question.
Jordi Casamitjana was dismissed by the League Against Cruel Sports (the “League”) for gross misconduct. Mr Casamitjana had disclosed to other colleagues at the League that their pension fund was being invested in companies that were involved in animal testing. However, Mr Casamitjana alleges that he was dismissed for his views on animal products as an ethical vegan.
The League did not challenge Mr Casamitjana’s claim that ethical veganism could be a protected characteristic as they claim that it is not relevant to the reason for Mr Casamitjana’s dismissal, which will be decided separately to this case.
What is an ethical vegan?
People choose to be vegan for various reasons. Some “dietary vegans” choose veganism for the health benefits of not eating meat or fatty foods while “ethical vegans” specifically choose the lifestyle because they do not want to exploit animals. As well as not eating food from animal products, they will also often refuse to wear wool or leather as it has come from an animal.
Mr Casamitjana specifically explained that he takes his vegan beliefs into many aspects of his life beyond simply choosing not to eat animals. For example, he says he will walk rather than take a bus because that can reduce the chance of killing insects or birds if they were hit by the vehicle.
What is a protected characteristic?
The Equality Act 2010 provides protections against discrimination or harassment based on any of nine protected characteristics. The relevant protected characteristic here is “religion or belief”. While it is clear that religions such as Christianity or Sikhism would be protected by this section, the requirements are quite broad in relation to “belief”. According to the explanatory note for the Equality Act 2010, and case law since then, for a philosophical belief to be a protected characteristic, it must:
Be genuinely held
Be a belief, not just an opinion or viewpoint
Have attained 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 the fundamental rights of others
Have similar status or cogency to a religious belief
It does not, however, have to be shared by others
Ethical veganism had not previously been considered to be a protected characteristic before this ruling. Nevertheless, the ruling does not mean that Mr Casamitjana was unfairly dismissed or is entitled to any compensation on the facts of his own case as this will be decided at the full merits hearing. However, the ruling does mean that if it is found that Mr Casamitjana had been dismissed because of his belief in ethical veganism then he might be entitled to compensation for discrimination or harassment.
What should businesses do in response to the ruling?
Interestingly, in a similar case (Conisbee v Crossley Farms Ltd) vegetarianism was not held to be a philosophical belief as it was not enough to merely have the opinion that it would be better not to eat meat.
The ruling in Mr Casamitjana’s case is not binding on other courts or tribunals as it was only made by a first instance tribunal. However, the reasoning used by this tribunal could provide guidance in future cases.
The impact of the decision could be far reaching extending to ethical vegans who work in shops refusing to handle products manufactured from animals. It is not just in the realms of employment that the decision will have ramifications but in education and the supply of goods and services.
Whilst Mr Casamitjana may have been successful in establishing protection for ethical vegans it is important to note that he has yet to establish that his dismissal was linked to his beliefs. It is also important that for vegans wanting to claim similar protection that they will have to establish a similar level of philosophical belief and not just that they are vegan.