Legal Issues – When is a belief protected in discrimination law?

Some of you may remember our update from August in relation to what might fall under the protection of anti-discrimination in relation to religion and belief. That update was largely centred on Mr McEleny, whose belief in Scottish independence was deemed worthy of said protection at the initial tribunal hearing.

Another recent case has come to the fore, which involves a man attempting to bring veganism within the protection.

Veganism has become a lifestyle choice for many people in recent years, and generally involves a plant-based diet that is free from any animal food product, such as eggs or dairy.

However, there is a subset of veganism known as ‘ethical veganism’ that takes this further, with ethical vegans excluding any product that is animal-related, including wool or leather clothing or any product that is linked to animal testing.

Such a vegan has recently brought a claim against his former employer, stating that he was dismissed from his role due to his ethical vegan beliefs.

Mr Casamitjana worked for the League Against Cruel Sports in a research role. When he became aware of his employer investing in companies that use animal testing, he raised the issue with his managers. When nothing was changed, he discussed the matter with colleagues.

His employer’s stance is that he was dismissed for gross misconduct, and not because of his stance on veganism. Before the discrimination claim can go forward, the Employment Tribunal (ET) will have to decide whether veganism is a belief that is protected by equality legislation.

As with Mr McEleny, the ET is likely to make that decision by deciding whether his belief is:

  1. Genuinely held;
  2. A belief and not an opinion or viewpoint;
  3. A belief as to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour;
  4. Of a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance;
  5. Worthy of respect in a democratic society, not incompatible with human dignity and not in conflict with the fundamental rights of others.

Given that veganism for many, and certainly for Mr Casamitjana, appears to determine a great deal of how they live their lives, it does not seem a far stretch for ethical or even more mainstream veganism to meet the criteria.

As mentioned previously, beliefs in climate change, environmentalism and anti-fox hunting have all been deemed worthy of protection, which again suggests that veganism may merit the same.

If the ET does find in his favour, it will then have to decide whether the dismissal was because of his beliefs or, as his employer argues, his conduct.

Such a finding may have little impact on employers, given that it is arguably unlikely that veganism is going to be a common feature in the dismissal of an employee, but cases like these continue to remind us that strongly-held beliefs (particularly when shared by a section of society) can be protected in law, and caution should therefore be exercised when those beliefs are linked to any sort of formal action.

If you have any questions on any of the issues raised in the above article, please contact Seanpaul McCahill.

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