Veganism and discrimination

Last year the BBC ran a story on what it described as a ‘landmark’ case on whether veganism, or more specifically, ethical veganism was a religion or belief for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010.

The factual background to the case is that the Mr Casamitjana was dismissed by his employer, the League Against Cruel Sports, for what the employer deemed to be gross misconduct. Mr Casamitjana however has (I assume) alleged that the dismissal was discriminatory, the exact label upon which the discrimination is alleged to occur is unclear but I would imagine it is a complaint of direct discrimination given the employer’s statement to the press that “Mr Casamitjana is seeking to use his veganism as the reason for his dismissal.”

Landmark?

Whilst the BBC (and Mr Casamitjana for that matter) seem to promote the case as landmark I really do not see it as such.  The protected characteristic of religion of belief in the Equality Act is broad and includes philosophical beliefs of which ethical veganism is potentially surely one whether there has been a case considering this or not.  The test for whether a philosophical belief is covered by the protected characteristic of religion or belief is set out in the EAT’s decision in Grainger PLC v Nicholson [2009]. Grainger, which itself concerned the alleged protected belief of climate change and the environment, sets out that five questions need to be answered affirmatively, and if they are then the belief is protected:

(i) The belief must be genuinely held.
(ii) It must be a belief and not an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available.
(iii) It must be a belief as to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour.
(iv) It must attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance.
(v) It must be worthy of respect in a democratic society, be not incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others

What is noteworthy is that it appears likely that the EAT’s decision takes the scope of religion and belief discrimination much further than the then New Labour government that introduced it intended – for example, in 2010 after the EHRC issued guidance that veganism was probably a protected belief the Government Equality Office objected to this expansion saying

the government did not share the view that climate change or veganism were religious beliefs; however, the interpretation was a matter for courts. The spokesman said: “The Equality Bill does not change the existing definition of religion or belief and the Government does not think that views or opinions based on scientific – or indeed on political – theories can be considered to be akin to religious beliefs or philosophical beliefs. Nor was it the intention in introducing the legislation that such beliefs should be covered (source).

Be that as it may the broader approach has indeed been accepted by the courts and it is not hard to see that ethical veganism is quite capable of meeting these five Grainger tests. Indeed, the EHRC in its Religion and belief guidance is explicit that “Beliefs such as humanism, pacifism, vegetarianism and the belief in man-made climate change are all protected.” There is no sensible reason why vegetarianism should be a protected belief and veganism is not.

Again, quoting from the BBC’s piece, Peter Daly the solicitor for Mr Casamitjana explains that if his client is “successful, we will achieve a judgment which formally recognises the protected status of ethical veganism and which could then be used as the basis to combat discrimination against vegans in employment, in the provision of goods and services, and in education. This is therefore a landmark case.”

Frankly, whether a tribunal has ever formally recognised ethical veganism as a protected belief or not it is little more than PR to describe this as ‘landmark’ the fact that according to Mr Casamitjana’s own crowdfunding appeal this apparently ‘contentious’ issue has now been conceded by the employer.

What seems more likely is that the real battle will be not on whether the treatment was because of the protected belief itself or because of conduct that arguably grew out of that belief similar to the recent Court of Appeal judgement in Kuteh upholding the fairness of the dismissal of a Christian nurse for inappropriate proselytism during work hours.

Protected Belief

To continue with the vegan theme I note that the Daily Mirror is reporting today on demands to outlaw vegan discrimination, with Alex Monaco a solicitor being quoted as saying:

If you were Jewish or Muslim and told to get a round of bacon sandwiches in, no one would bat an eyelid if you refused. But if you’re vegan and refused to buy a pint of milk to make tea because you believe the dairy industry is torturing cows, then you would be laughed out of the kitchen. Employers should have a duty to ensure vegans are protected at work and are offered options. The ultimate aim is to get the law changed so that the Equality Act includes vegans.”

I have to confess it does strike me as a strange demand since, as should be clear, there is no reason that claims of discrimination at work on the basis of veganism cannot already, on the current law, be pursued meaning there is no need to “get the law changed” at all. The mission is already accomplished!