An employment tribunal recently extended the scope of the protections offered to those who have protected characteristics going to religion or ‘belief’, within the meaning of the Equality Act 2010.
At a preliminary hearing Norwich Employment Tribunal ruled that ethical veganism amounts to a “philosophical belief”. This was in a claim brought by Jordi Casamitjana for his unfair dismissal by his employer, animal welfare charity, The League Against Cruel Sports.
Mr Casamitjana says he was sacked by the League Against Cruel Sports after raising concerns that its pension fund was receiving investment from companies involved in animal testing. His claim centred around being unfairly disciplined for disclosing this and he also claims that the the decision to dismiss him was because of his philosophical belief in ethical veganism.
The Equality Act 2010 prohibits discrimination when it is based on one of nine protected characteristics, including sex, race, disability, age and religion or belief. Being recognised as a philosophical belief means that a belief held in ethical veganism establishes protected status for the purposes of discrimination law.
Ethical veganism means more than eating a plant-based diet. It involves avoiding contact with products derived from any form of animal exploitation, including not wearing clothing made of wool or leather and refraining from using products that have been tested on animals. Some of the law in relation to defining qualifying philosophical beliefs is drawn from human rights law. The Employment Appeal Tribunal case of Grainger Plc v Nicholson  gave guidance on the definition of philosophical belief, which at the time concluded, amongst other things, that a belief in climate change was potentially capable of amounting to a philosophical belief for the purposes of the Religion and Belief Regulations.
That case also provided guidance that a belief must not be an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available, it must be a belief as to a “weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour” and it must attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance. This may all be considered in the eye of the beholder but there is a discernible shift in the appetite of the judiciary at least.
The ruling does not settle Casamitjana’s claim for unfair dismissal, which is ongoing.
The League Against Cruel Sports did not contest the issue over whether ethical veganism should be a protected belief, instead choosing to maintain its irrelevance. The core reason for Casamitjana’s dismissal, it advanced, was Mr Casamitjana’s misconduct.
Other beliefs that have also been recognised as protected include a belief in Scottish independence and a belief in the sanctity of life, extending to fervent anti-fox hunting views.
According to the Vegan Society, the number of vegans in the UK has quadrupled since 2014, increasing from 150,000 to 600,000.
Following the recent ruling, employers should be more aware of the scope of the legal protections as they evolve as what is a response to ever-changing trends in the belief systems prevalent in society.
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