Veganism: the new religion?

By Jill Evans, Law Content Analyst

With perfect timing, Veganuary was ushered in this year with a ‘landmark’ judgment on ‘ethical veganism’.

The case, Casamitjana v League Against Cruel Sports, involves a zoologist who was the charity’s head of policy and research prior to being dismissed for alleged gross misconduct. He claims he was unfairly dismissed, and discriminated against for his vegan beliefs, because he blew the whistle on his employer’s pension fund allegedly investing in companies using animal testing. In a preliminary hearing, an employment tribunal judge decided that ethical veganism could be protected under the Equality Act 2010.

The written judgement states that ethical veganism is ‘not just about choices of diet, but about choices relating to what a person wears, what personal care products he or she uses, their hobbies and the jobs he or she does’. The judgement describes ethical vegans as people who have ‘chosen to live, as far as possible, without the use of animal products’ and who live ‘according to a belief or conviction that it is wrong to exploit and kill living beings unnecessarily’. The judge found this was a moral conviction that was ‘cogent, serious and important’. He accepted that Casamitjana did adhere to this philosophy and that this constituted ‘the basis of his philosophical belief acting as a moral framework’.

In contrast, the same employment judge decided last September, in Conisbee v Crossley Farms, that Conisbee’s vegetarianism wasn’t a belief but a lifestyle choice. The claimant was a waiter and a vegetarian who’d resigned claiming he’d been shouted at over his clothing choices and deliberately given snacks laced with meat products.

It is one thing to establish in a tribunal that a belief can be protected, but another to show an employee has that belief, and that their employer discriminated against them because of it. Employment lawyers are fond of pointing out that each case turns on its facts. Even though Casamitjana’s beliefs qualified for protection, another person’s veganism may not. And Casamitjana still needs to establish that he was unlawfully dismissed because of his veganism beliefs. There will be a full hearing later this month (February) to decide that.

The Grainger plc v Nicholson case established in 2010 that philosophical beliefs within the meaning of the Act had to have ‘sufficient cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance’ and be ‘worthy of respect in a democratic society’. That case also found that a belief in climate change could qualify for protection against discrimination.

Climate change looks as if it will remain a prominent concern during this decade. Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg pushed the issue into the limelight last year, and the bushfires in Australia are ensuring it stays there.

It isn’t a surprise that veganism and vegetarianism are growing in popularity not only because people want to eat less meat but also because of the link to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. Veganuary, a crowd-funded campaign started in 2014 to promote vegan-only foods, this year had 350,000 people worldwide signing up to receive its tips on going vegan and the Vegan Society says it had 600,000 members in Britain in 2018, a threefold increase since 2006.

This makes it more possible that employers will find themselves facing similar claims in the future. The best defence to them is avoiding discrimination in the first place by building inclusive workplaces, where every person feels valued, accepted and supported, regardless of differences in belief. Catering for vegans, by making adequate provision for them in staff canteens and at work events, is likely to be a sensible first step.

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