HR Expert: Ethical veganism not always a protected philosophical belief
My client has a new employee who is passionate about animal rights. They’re a pet shop, so most of the staff are animal lovers, but this is on another level. They refer to themselves as an ‘ethical vegans’, and will not eat, wear, or use any animal products.

They have said that in their spare time they participate in illegal activities with a group known to take radical action, including trespassing on local properties and stealing animals deemed mistreated, and that they feel obliged to do this because of their beliefs.

My client wants to dismiss them, as they are scaring customers away by telling them these things, and berating those that do not agree, and for their illegal activities, but the employee says it’s their philosophical belief and they will bring a discrimination claim if they do.

Can they?

The Equality Act 2010 prohibits discrimination at work against anyone on the grounds of their religious or philosophical belief. In 2020, the case of Casamitjana v League Against Cruel Sports held that, for the first time, an employee’s belief in ethical veganism amounted to a philosophical belief, and was therefore protected under the Act.

However, in the recent case of Free Miles v The Royal Veterinary College, an employee’s ethical veganism was found not to be protected. Here, the employee was dismissed in connection to her involvement with an animal rights group that endorsed law breaking, trespass and theft. As a result she raised claims for direct and indirect philosophical belief discrimination, arguing that her ethical veganism included a moral obligation to take positive action to reduce animal suffering.

The Employment Tribunal (ET) found that a belief which involved acting in contravention of the law would not be worthy of respect in a democratic society, so failed the necessary tests to be protected as a philosophical belief under the Act. The ET stated that, had her belief in ethical veganism followed that of Casamitjana’s and been limited to not eating, wearing, using, experimenting or profiting from animals, and if the ‘positive action’ she took was lawful (i.e. didn’t involve breaking into people’s property and taking animals), it would have had no reservation in concluding that it was a philosophical belief.

When considering the scope of a belief, the tribunal will apply several, difficult tests. To be successful, the belief must be genuinely held, not an opinion or viewpoint, and have a substantial impact on human life and behaviour. It must be cogent, cohegent, serious and important, and worthy of respect in a democratic society, by ensuring human dignity and non-confliction with people’s fundamental rights. A philosophical belief should have similar status to a religious belief, but it does not need to be shared by others, nor does it have to be based on science.

Your client should not be put off by what the employee has said. They can still investigate this behaviour and the impact it is having on the business. As the employee’s beliefs appear to contradict one or more of the above tests, it will unlikely be protected under the Equality Act anyway, so your client has more flexibility to continue with any employment processes (e.g. disciplinary and dismissal), as long as there still remains fair reason to do so.

 


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