Is veganism a protected characteristic?

A case brought by Jordi Casamitjana against the League Against Cruel Sports (LACS) tests the boundaries of the Equality Act 2010

Casamitjana claims he was dismissed after raising concerns that LACS invested pension funds in companies involved in animal testing. He alleges that he reported his concerns to managers but when nothing happened he told his colleagues. Casamitjana alleges that he was discriminated against on the basis of his ethical vegan beliefs; this is veganism where the decision not to eat or use animal produce is an ethical choice rather than a health or dietary issue. However, LACS has stated that Casamitjana was dismissed for gross misconduct and failing to follow express management instructions. It vehemently denies that his dismissal was in any way linked to veganism.

Veganism is not a protected characteristic in its own right under the Equality Act, so Casamitjana first needs to have it recognised as such in order to succeed in his claim. Therefore the tribunal in March 2019 will be asked to determine whether veganism is a ‘philosophical belief’ that could be recognised as a protected characteristic alongside religion. This is the first case of its kind and has attracted much interest.

To qualify as a philosophical belief capable of protection under the legislation, veganism needs to meet a number of criteria, namely it must (among other factors):

  • Be genuinely held;
  • Be a belief as to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour;
  • Attain 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, and;
  • Be a belief, not an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available.

It may not be too difficult for veganism to meet this criteria as, in its guidance on religion or belief, the Equality and Human Rights Commission refers to the fact that veganism constitutes a protected philosophical belief under the Human Rights Act 1998 (albeit without specific reference to the Equality Act).

If Casamitjana is successful in enhancing employment protection for vegans employers will need to carefully consider the needs of vegans in the workplace to ensure they are not treated any less favourably because of their beliefs. This could entail, for example, amending policies to reflect the inclusion of veganism as a protected characteristic, ensuring that vegans are sufficiently catered for wherever food is provided, and making sure that employees aren’t subjected to any negative remarks or criticism as a result of their vegan beliefs.

It is also likely that we would see further discrimination claims brought by vegans in the areas of employment, in the provision of goods and services, and in education. It could also pave the way for claims that other lifestyle choices and beliefs should be given the same statutory protection.

For Casamitjana, the decision in March is just the first stage in his claim against his employer. Even if veganism is held to be a protected characteristic he will still need to demonstrate that it was discrimination due to his ethical vegan beliefs, rather than gross misconduct as alleged by LACS, that led to his dismissal.

Chris Cook is a partner and head of employment and data protection at SA Law