07 Jan Veganuary starts with a landmark case for vegans everywhere
In timing which couldn’t be more apt, as Veganuary gets underway, an Employment Tribunal will be giving consideration to the claim that Ethical Veganism amounts to a Philosophy or Belief protectable under the Equality Act 2010. It follows on from a different, and widely misinterpreted decision in a different Tribunal relating to Mrs Forstater’s belief in the immutable nature of the biological sexes, and, crucially, the way she expressed that belief.
So, firstly, what is the question all about? What is a Philosophy or Belief, as defined in the Equality Act 2010? The Equality Act is the place where all protected categories are contained and the law against discrimination is to be found. It includes the more obvious categories of sex, race and disability, and also protects against discrimination for a Philosophical belief, which is what we are looking at here. It gives clear guidance on what sort of things are to be protected, namely:
• The belief must be genuinely held.
• It must be a belief, not an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available. It must be a belief as to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour.
• It must attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance.
• It must be worthy of respect in a democratic society, not be incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others.
• It must “have a similar status or cogency to a religious belief”. However, it need not “allude to a fully-fledged system of thought”; in other words, it does not need to be an “-ism. It need not be shared by others.
It is a relatively new legal concept, and case law is beginning to be decided over what can, and cannot, be protected. For example, the belief that lying is always wrong has been accepted as being capable of protection, whereas the belief that a poppy should be worn from 2nd November to Remembrance Sunday was not as the belief lacked the required characteristics of cogency, cohesion and importance, and could not fairly be described as relating to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour.
Looking at the case of Mrs Forstater, which caused so much furore in the news recently, this concerned the aforementioned Mrs Forstater, a researcher who lost her job as a visiting fellow at the Centre for Global Development, after tweeting that transgender women cannot change their biological sex. The tribunal found that she was “absolutist” in her view of sex and that it was a core component of her belief that she would refer to a person by the sex she considered appropriate even if it violated their dignity or created an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. it is important to note that the Tribunal did find that her belief in the immutable nature of biological sex could amount to a protected belief. However, the manner in which she expressed it meant she fell foul of the definition that it must not be incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others. It was made clear that had she simply held this belief, campaigned for it, etc, then this could have been protected.
Essentially, having a belief in something doesn’t give you the ultimate protection to behave in any way that you like, if your behaviour is conflicting with the fundamental rights of others.
The Ethical Veganism case which is currently being heard is simply looking at whether Ethical Veganism itself (ethical vegans not only have a plant-based diet, but also live their lives in a way which doesn’t impact on animals, so not wearing animal products or using them, and avoiding companies which support this). In this case, Jordi Casamitjana said he was sacked by the League Against Cruel Sports after raising concerns that its pension fund was being invested into companies involved in animal testing.
He claims he was unfairly disciplined for making this disclosure and that the decision to dismiss him was because of his philosophical belief in ethical veganism.
If the Tribunal concludes this week that Ethical Veganism is capable of protection, this will be a significant case for vegan workers everywhere. Whilst, as pointed out above, it does not give vegans carte blanche to behave in any way they wish, it would afford the lifestyle choice protection in a number of ways – although whether the act in question itself would be protected is far from clear.