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Ethical veganism and protected beliefs – what do employers need to be aware of?

Legal review with Coffin Mew

Ethical veganism and protected beliefs – what do employers need to be aware of?

At the start of the year we saw a flurry of press coverage focusing on those taking part in Veganuary.
We were also reminded of the very topical employment law case of vegan employee Mr Casamitjana.
The Employment Tribunal ruled for the first time that ethical veganism is to be considered a philosophical belief and is therefore protected under the Equality Act 2010.
Mr Casamitjana claims that he was dismissed from his employment due to his ethical veganism, after raising concerns that a fund the employer invested in was involved in animal testing.
His employer counters that Mr Casamitijana was dismissed for gross misconduct and no other reason.
The initial hearing focused on whether ethical veganism is a ‘religious and philosophical belief’ and therefore a protected characteristic under the Act.
The tribunal has not released the reasoning behind its decision to rule that Mr Casamitjana’s ethical vegan belief was protected.
However, when looking at Mr Casamitjana’s earlier comments to the press, it would appear obvious that his beliefs are very deeply held and impact on how he lives his daily life.
Whilst this is a first for ethical veganism, it is a first instance decision only and therefore not binding on future cases.
All cases are decided on their own merits and other vegans or vegetarians will need to show that their particular belief qualifies.

What do employers need to consider?

The outcome of Mr Casamitjana’s case is likely to have an impact on others who feel that they are being discriminated against, or that their deeply held beliefs are not being respected within the workplace.
It’s not unusual for employees to hold strong beliefs or to freely express them with their friends and colleagues.
There is though a chance that conflict, or even claims, could arise if either a colleague or the employer itself takes issue with what appears to be a strongly held belief or the way it is being manifested in the workplace.
The risks involved also naturally increase where opposing beliefs are in direct conflict with each other.
In a society where individuals are increasingly becoming more active and vocal in relation to issues like animal rights and climate change, employers do need to tread a careful line in approaching an individual’s beliefs with respect and caution, but
without forgetting that the workplace is somewhere that boundaries can and should be set.
Certain beliefs beyond the recognised religions can qualify for protection.

How do I know if an employee’s particular belief or set of beliefs is protected?

It can be difficult without knowing more about the employee in question, however, rest assured a temporary fad or controversial view alone is unlikely to qualify.
The individual must be able to show that the belief:

  • Is genuinely held;
  • Be a belief, not an opinion or viewpoint;
  • Relates to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour;
  • Have attained 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 the fundamental rights of others;
  • Have a similar status or cogency to a religious belief;
  • It need not be shared by others.

It is clear that not all lifestyle choices will easily meet these criteria and, as past case law has shown, it is not a simple process to prove a characteristic should be protected. If you would like further advice on protected characteristics, discrimination or any other aspects of employment law, contact employment partner Leon Deakin.
leondeakin@coffinmew.co.uk
(01635) 521212.

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