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Equality Act protection on the menu this Veganuary!

Should ethical vegans have the same protection as those with religious beliefs under the Equality Act 2010?

An employment tribunal has now made a long-awaited decision on this much debated issue.

The Equality Act 2010 is concerned with discrimination and harassment in respect of nine protected characteristics, of which religion or belief is one.  Last week an employment tribunal decided on a preliminary issue, being whether ethical veganism should be protected as amounting to a philosophical belief as part of the religion or belief protected characteristic.

In order to amount to a philosophical belief worthy of protection, the person holding the belief must meet certain criteria such as the belief having a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance and being worthy of respect in a democratic society.

There are many cases where various beliefs have been considered by the tribunals, and last year an employment tribunal decided that vegetarianism did not qualify for protection as it was a lifestyle choice.  In this case, the belief in question was ethical veganism, which goes further than dietary choices, and has been described as “not just about food, but a way of life”.

Casamitjana v League Against Cruel Sports

Mr Casamitjana is an ethical vegan.  His beliefs affect much of his everyday life. He will, for example, choose to walk rather than travelling by bus to avoid accidental crashes with insects or birds. He will also avoid wearing clothing made of wool or leather.

He worked for the animal welfare charity, the League Against Cruel Sports, as head of policy and research until he was dismissed.  He claims that he was discriminated against on the grounds of his ethical vegan beliefs.  This is on the basis that he says he was dismissed for challenging his employer’s pension fund investments in firms involved with animal testing, which is against his beliefs.  The League however says that he was dismissed for gross misconduct.

Mr Casamitjana argued that ethical veganism is a philosophical belief and should be protected under the Equality Act 2010.  The tribunal therefore had to decide as a preliminary issue whether it should be so protected, as the first thing that Mr Casamitjana must be able to show in a claim for discrimination is that his beliefs amount to a philosophical belief capable of being a protected characteristic and therefore qualifying for protection. 

Decision

The Norwich employment tribunal ruled that ethical veganism is a philosophical belief and is therefore capable of protection under the Equality Act 2010. The Judge described Mr Casamitjana’s views as “important” and “worthy of respect in a democratic society.” 

The tribunal will now need to consider the substantive claim which, amongst other things, will involve looking at the real reason for Mr Casamitjana’s dismissal.  

Comment

Employers should be mindful of this outcome and of treating those with ethical vegan beliefs in the same way they would treat those with religious beliefs. For example, individuals should not be treated less favourably than others because of their beliefs, and blanket policies should not be applied to everyone where they may put ethical vegans at a disadvantage, unless this can be justified.  Employers should also make employees aware that jokes and “banter” around the issue of veganism may amount to harassment and is not acceptable.

Employers should also remember that protection applies not only to employees and workers, but also during recruitment, so any decisions made should not be linked to any such beliefs that candidates may have.

Although the decision is not binding on other tribunals, this case provides us with an idea of how tribunals may approach future cases but it is important to remember that each case will depend on its own facts.  We may see more claimants arguing that other beliefs are capable of protection under the Equality Act 2010 and now would be an opportune time to update policies such as anti-harassment and bullying and equal opportunities policies and provide training to take this into account.

If you have any queries in relation to discrimination or any other HR or employment law queries, please contact our employment team on 01228 552600 or 01524 548494.

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