Ethical veganism not always a protected philosophical belief

The Equality Act 2010 prohibits discrimination at work against anyone on the grounds of their religious or philosophical belief. In early 2020, the employment tribunal considered the case of Casamitjana v League Against Cruel Sports and concluded, for the first time, that the employee’s belief in ethical veganism amounted to a philosophical belief, so was therefore protected under the Equality Act.  

However, the recent case of Free Miles v The Royal Veterinary College decided that an employee’s ethical veganism did not amount to a philosophical belief. Here, the employee was dismissed for reasons connected to her involvement with an animal rights group that endorsed law breaking and participating in trespass and theft. As a result, she raised claims for direct and indirect philosophical belief discrimination, arguing that her ethical veganism included a moral obligation to take positive action to reduce animal suffering. 

The Employment Tribunal found that a belief which involved acting in contravention of the law would not be worthy of respect in a democratic society, so failed the necessary tests to be protected as a philosophical belief under the Equality Act 2010. The ET stated that, had her belief in ethical veganism followed that of Casamitjana’s and been limited to not eating, wearing, using, experimenting or profiting from animals, and if the ‘positive action’ she took was lawful (i.e. didn’t involve breaking into people’s property and taking animals), it would have had no reservation in concluding that it was a philosophical belief.  

When considering the scope of a belief, the tribunal will apply several, difficult tests. To be successful, the belief must be genuinely held, not an opinion or viewpoint, and have a substantial impact on human life and behaviour. It must be cogent, cohegent, serious and important, and worthy of respect in a democratic society, by ensuring human dignity and non-confliction with people’s fundamental rights. A philosophical belief should have similar status to a religious belief, but it does not need to be shared by others, nor does it have to be based on science.  

Other philosophical beliefs which have successfully met the tribunals’ tests include a belief in climate change and the environment; pacifism; Scottish Independence; spiritualism; and the importance of not lying. However, each case is assessed on its own merits, so what is a protected belief for one person, may not be for another, as seen in the comparison of Casamitjana and Free Miles.  

Therefore, where an employee alleges unfair treatment due to a belief they hold, it is important that the issue is fully investigated and appropriate allowances made, otherwise the employer may face wider risks of discrimination claims being raised. This being said, where the belief contradicts one or more of the above tests, it will unlikely be protected under the Equality Act, so the employer has more flexibility to continue with any employment processes (e.g. disciplinary), as long as there still remains fair reason to do so.  

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