Veganuary – Is being a vegan a protected characteristic?

As Veganuary is coming to an end, many who took on the New Year’s challenge will continue in their choice to join the millions who are already ‘full time’ vegans as the concept of removing all animal products from the diet and everyday life grows in popularity. From your ‘oat’ latte and ‘vegan mozzarella’ topped pizza, an increasing number of people are adopting this lifestyle choice whether it is for health, religious or personal beliefs with the trend quadrupling in 5 years between 2012-2017 with an estimated £3.5 million vegans in the UK today. The Vegan Society defines it as:

‘A philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude — as far as is possible and practicable — all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.’

Is being a vegan a protected characteristic?

Mr Casamitjana was sacked by his employer, League Against Cruel Sports, for allegations of gross misconduct, that he publicly disclosed that his employer invested pension funds in organisations that were involved in animal testing, which conflicts with the very essence of what the organisation stands for: preventing cruelty to animals.

Mr Casamitjana has brought a claim in the Employment Tribunal, which is due to be heard in March this year, alleging that he was dismissed because he is an ‘ethical vegan’. The crux of his argument is that he was dismissed because he is vegan and this is a protected belief and therefore a protected characteristic within the meaning of the Equality Act.

What is veganism?

Veganism is where an individual takes a decision not to eat animal products. Ethical veganism is where the decision not to eat animal produce is ethical rather than based on health and/or dietary matters.

The League Against Cruel Sports has defended the claim on the grounds that Mr Casamitjana was sacked because of gross misconduct; his failure to follow express instructions from management, and in any event, that veganism is not a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010.

Mr Casamitjana’s argument is that the required threshold for protection from discrimination is comfortably met by his belief in ethical veganism and that this personal belief is sufficiently strong enough to achieve that protection.

Is veganism a protected belief?

The Equality and Human Rights Commission has made it clear in guidance that veganism can be and is a philosophical belief releasing a statement: ‘It is a genuinely held belief and not just an opinion, in respect of awaiting substantial aspects of human life and behaviour which are worthy of respect in a democratic society.’

The employer’s defence

The employer’s defence is that Mr Casamitjana was dismissed for gross misconduct and for failing to follow express management instructions that were given to him. This is unrelated to his belief in ‘ethical veganism’. It is their case that after a fair and reasonable process, Mr Casamitjana was dismissed for his conduct, unconnected with his beliefs, whether they were protected or otherwise. They have stated that the only reason a spurious claim for unfair dismissal connected to his belief in ethical veganism has been issued, is due to the lack of service to enable him to bring an ordinary unfair dismissal complaint. Mr Casamitjana did not have two complete years’ service in order to entitle him to bring a claim for unfair dismissal.

Hearing listed at the Employment Tribunal for March 2019

The Employment Tribunal has listed Mr Casamitjana’s case for a preliminary hearing to determine whether or not veganism is in fact a philosophical belief protected by law.  If the Tribunal decides that veganism is a philosophical belief, Mr Casamitjana’s claim will proceed to a full trial, the first of its kind in a landmark decision.

The law

Religion or philosophical belief is one of the nine protected characteristics which are currently covered by the Equality Act 2010. An individual is protected against unfair treatment on grounds of the following:

  • Age
  • Disability
  • Gender resassignment
  • Marriage & Civil Partnership
  • Pregnancy & Maternity
  • Race
  • Sex
  • Sexual orientation

An employer is not allowed to discriminate directly by treating an employee less favourably than others because of their religion or philosophical belief.

In order for veganism to  qualify as a philosophical belief, Mr Casamitjana  must be able to prove the following:

  • That his belief is genuinely held;
  • The belief is one as to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour;
  • Attain 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 with fundamental rights of others and;
  • Be a belief not an opinion or view point based on the present state of information available

Ms Louise Davies of The Vegan Society is quoted to have said ‘for many people veganism is a deeply held belief’.

Workplace beliefs

Mr Casamitjana’s case highlights the sensitive issues that can arise in the workplace and the challenge that employers face in ensuring that the manner in which they treat employees is not connected to a belief that could amount to a protected characteristic and provide employees and workers with enhanced protection.

For further advice on how to deal with issues in the workplace surrounding religious or philosophical beliefs, please contact us.


Disclaimer

This briefing is for guidance purposes only. RadcliffesLeBrasseur accepts no responsibility or liability whatsoever for any action taken or not taken in relation to this note and recommends that appropriate legal advice be taken having regard to a client's own particular circumstances.

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