Two recent cases look at whether or not vegetarianism and veganism could amount to a protected characteristic for the purpose of discrimination laws.

It’s that time of year when everyone wants to be healthy, watching what they eat, particularly after all those mince pies(!). Two recent Employment Tribunal cases have had a similar focus on eating habits, specifically veganism and vegetarianism, and whether or not those eating habits could amount to a ‘philosophical belief’ so as to be a “protected characteristic” for the purposes of discrimination under the Equality Act 2010, alongside other protected characteristics such as gender, race, or disability.

In a landmark ruling in September 2019, where the employer was represented by none other than Employmentor’s very own Sarah Appleton and Dan Chapman, the Claimant was unsuccessful in claiming that his vegetarianism amounted to a protected characteristic.  Simply put, the Tribunal agreed with our experts that vegetarianism is not a philosophical belief, and so the Claimant could not bring a discrimination claim based on any “banter” or other treatment he allegedly suffered by virtue of being a vegetarian.

The more recent case, Casamitjana v League Against Cruel Sports, involved a vegan Claimant asserting that his belief in “ethical veganism” (the belief not only in following a vegan diet, but also avoiding the use of animal products entirely and taking active steps not to harm any animal in any way) should be protected under discrimination law. In this case, the Employment Judge (the same Judge involved in the previous case) commented that he was “satisfied overwhelmingly” that ethical veganism (in that case) is a philosophical belief.

The key distinction between the two appears to be the cogency of the belief, i.e. the reasons for holding the belief being similar or the same. So, whilst people may be vegetarians for various different reasons, some unconnected to a “belief” per se, it appears (although the full Judgment is not yet available) in the vegan case that the Judge was satisfied that in the main, ethical vegans are ethical vegans for the same reasons, and are committed to it as a belief and way of life.

Indeed, an interesting question for future cases is whether or not “normal” (i.e. non-ethical) vegans would be protected – the Judgment of the vegetarian case appeared to suggest they would, although the perhaps deliberate clarification in the second case that “ethical” vegans are protected suggests that “normal” vegans might not be.  So we’ll have to watch this space on that one!

So what should employers do going forward?

The first point to remember is that these decisions are Employment Tribunal decisions only, and therefore not, strictly speaking, binding on either other Employment Tribunals, or, indeed, on employers. That said, both cases attracted vast media coverage and employers therefore should be prepared for more allegations of discrimination on the basis of belief – not just veganism, but other beliefs too, such as a belief in using recyclable materials, or anti-animal testing. As concern for the environment and ethical practices are more and more at the forefront of people’s minds, we anticipate that there may be increasing numbers of these types of claims going forward, looking to expand the “philosophical belief” definition further.

Contrary to some recent commentary, there is no need for employers to start changing their equal opportunities policies to refer to ethical vegans being protected, nor to bring in a whole host of new rules or training.  What employers should do though, is be mindful that more discrimination allegations are likely from staff, and to take steps (as far as possible) to minimise the risk of those allegations coming – that means treating staff fairly and with respect, and shutting down any “banter” which is inappropriate or crosses a line, as soon as you become aware of it.   Put simply, if you are nice to your staff and foster a nice working environment, they will have less reason to complain and (if they are ethical vegans) to allege discrimination.  And that sounds like a pretty good New Year’s Resolution to us…

Note: The content of this article is for general information only and does not constitute legal advice. Specific legal advice should be taken in any particular circumstance. If you would like more information on the content of this article, please call the Employmentor Team on 01603 281139.

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