The Employment Tribunal has ruled that “ethical veganism” is a philosophical belief, and therefore a protected characteristic for discrimination purposes.

Whereas vegans do not eat any food derived from animals, ethical vegans do not use anything from animals, for example they do not wear leather products or use beauty products tested on animals or containing animal derivatives.  In short, they are vegans who feel really very strongly about the subject.

The Employee claimed that he was dismissed by the League Against Cruel Sports because of his ethical veganism. The League Against Cruel Sports did not dispute that ethical veganism was a philosophical belief, but say that it is irrelevant because they sacked him after he created a fuss amongst colleagues about the company’s pension scheme.

The decision will not come as a surprise to some people, who recall that the Employment Appeal Tribunal has previously said that a strong belief in climate change was a philosophical belief. There are often trends of cases and this is a clear indication of how the Employment Tribunals will approach cases concerning philosophical belief.

The current trend appears to be that those with strongly held beliefs are more likely to gain protection as opposed to those with moderately held beliefs. In our opinion this is the wrong route for the courts to take. It would seem that if Mr Casamitjana had been a vegan, as opposed to an ethical vegan, it is far less likely his beliefs would have been protected.

On an academic level the approach the courts have taken is concerning. Just because someone has a strong belief does not always mean it is more worthy of protection than more moderately held beliefs. Indeed, it has been suggested that such an approach protects those who are fundamentalists, even fanatical, and not those with moderate beliefs. We would argue that the law should protect the moderate voices as well as the extreme ones.

Although this is only an Employment Tribunal and so not binding in the way that decisions from the higher courts are, it is a reminder to employers that a belief that is (amongst other things) genuinely held and worthy of respect in a democratic society can be a philosophical belief for discrimination legislation purposes. Just because they may not agree with it, does mean that it can be ignored.  Thus vegans, environmentalists and ironically atheists can be the source of discrimination or harassment claims against employers.

From a practical point of view, if someone has a strongly held belief which is frequently or clearly articulated, employers should be careful to ensure they are not subject to discrimination or harassment as a result.