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Veganism as a philosophical belief

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By Tiggy Hawkesworth

Coinciding with Veganuary at the beginning of 2020, the Employment Tribunal ruled that ethical veganism is a “philosophical belief” and protected under the Equality Act 2010.

Background to the case

Jordi Casamitjana was dismissed by the League Against Cruel Sports after raising concerns that its pension fund invested in pharmaceutical companies involved in animal testing. Mr Casamitjana claims he was unfairly disciplined for making the disclosure and discriminated against on the basis of his philosophical belief in ethical veganism.

At a preliminary hearing, the Employment Tribunal concluded that ethical veganism satisfied the test for it to qualify as philosophical belief under the Equality Act.

What is a philosophical belief?

To qualify, a number of criteria must be met, including that the belief is:

  • genuinely held, not a mere opinion or viewpoint based on existing facts;

  • relevant to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life;

  • of a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance; and

  • worthy of respect in a democratic society, but it need not be shared by others.

Although a high hurdle to overcome, the following have been ruled philosophical beliefs:

Anti-fox hunting – Hashman v Milton Park (Dorset) Ltd gave protection to a gardener fervently opposed to fox hunting.

Climate change – Nicholson v Grainger Plc saw protection obtained for a belief in catastrophic climate change.

Public service broadcasting – Maistry v BBC involved a BBC journalist given protection for his belief that public service broadcasting served a “higher purpose of promoting cultural interchange and social cohesion”.

Telling the truthHawkins v Universal Utilities Ltd said a belief that ‘it is wrong to lie under any circumstances’ amounted to a philosophical belief.

The Employment Tribunal has not found every belief to be a protected philosophical belief. In Farrell v South Yorkshire Police Authority the claimant’s belief that the 9/11 and 7/7 attacks were part of a global conspiracy was not protected by law.

What is ethical veganism?

Ethical vegans oppose the use of animals by humans for any purpose. This goes beyond maintaining a plant-food based diet as they do not buy clothes made of wool or leather and do not use products tested on animals. Mr Casamitjana said ethical veganism “involves much more than just not eating food with animal ingredients, it’s a philosophical belief system which encompasses most aspects of my life”. For instance, he will walk rather than take a bus to avoid “accidental crashes with insects or birds”.

What is the potential impact?

For those familiar with the definition of philosophical belief, this decision will not be a surprise, especially as it involves ethical veganism rather than dietary veganism. However, it demonstrates the scope of the Equality Act 2010 and liability for discrimination can be substantial.

Mr Casamitjana’s case now continues to determine whether he was treated unlawfully. Our Employment Law team are experienced at advising employees and employers about protection under the Equality Act and representing them in disputes.

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