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Sacked ‘ethical vegan’ claims discrimination in landmark case

3 Dec 2018 By Maggie Baska

Employment tribunal could see veganism classed as a protected characteristic

A landmark employment tribunal will decide next year whether veganism should be regarded as a philosophical belief and therefore receive the status of protected characteristic under the law.

Jordi Casamitjana (pictured above) claims he was fired from his role as head of policy and research at the League Against Cruel Sports (LACS) after disclosing it was investing pension funds into firms involved in animal testing. He says he was discriminated against because he is vegan.

Casamitjana – who describes himself as an “ethical vegan” because his veganism is based on beliefs rather than being simply a health or lifestyle choice – said he brought his discovery to the attention of his managers. He claimed that when nothing happened, he informed other employees and was fired as a result. 

LACS said Casamitjana was dismissed for gross misconduct – not because of his veganism. The organisation said it “emphatically rejects this claim” and added that to “link his dismissal with issues pertaining to veganism is factually wrong”.

An employment tribunal will meet in March 2019 to determine whether veganism is a “philosophical belief” protected by law. If the tribunal decides it is, the discrimination claim will proceed to a full trial.

Both dietary and ethical vegans eat a plant-based diet, excluding all animal-based foods or bi-products. Ethical vegans exclude all forms of animal exploitation including avoiding clothing made from wool or leather, or toiletries from companies involved in animal testing.

Casamitjana told the BBC he described himself as an “ethical vegan” because his veganism was a “belief [that] affects every single aspect” of his life. "Some people only eat a vegan diet but they don't care about the environment or the animals, they only care about their health. I care about the animals and the environment and my health and everything,” he said.

Religion or belief is one of nine protected characteristics covered by the Equality Act, alongside age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, sex and sexual orientation. 

The Equality Act says a philosophical belief must be genuinely held – not just an opinion or viewpoint. It must also be cogent, serious and apply to an important aspect of human life or behaviour. This belief must be worthy of respect in a democratic society and not affect other people’s fundamental rights. 

Anthony Sakrouge, partner at Russell-Cooke, said it seemed quite likely ethical veganism would qualify as a protected belief. He pointed out that guidance from the Human Rights Commission already assumes vegetarianism is protected and that the commission indicated soon after the act was passed that it was likely to add veganism.

He said: “If the tribunal finds veganism can be a protected belief, the decision will not bind other tribunals, unless it is confirmed on appeal. However, in practice it is likely to be treated as giving ethical vegans protection against discrimination, harassment or victimisation, at least until the decision is overturned or another tribunal takes a different view.”

Sue Kelly, partner in the employment team at Winckworth Sherwood, told People Management she could see how veganism could "easily" fit within the definition of philosophical belief, but the "bigger argument" would be whether Casamitjana was treated less favourably because of being vegan. 

"If the employer has a good paper trail and sufficient evidence to prove why he was dismissed, the fact he was vegan will be completely irrelevant," said Kelly. "The courts are going to have to consider whether his dismissal was because of his veganism and could be discriminatory or [was] for another reason."

Tribunals have debated the merit of many philosophical beliefs over the past decade. In 2009, an ET ruled belief in man-made climate change should be classed as a belief and protected under the Equality Act.

Earlier this year, the preliminary findings of a Glasgow tribunal found a belief in Scottish independence could be a protected philosophical belief after Scottish National Party (SNP) member Christopher McEleny argued independence from Britain was a belief congruous with his SNP membership. He claimed this belief was the reason he was dismissed by his former employer, the Ministry of Defence. 

Judge Frances Eccles ruled sovereignty and “self-determination” are “weighty and substantial aspects of human life”, and the McEleny case could go forward to a full hearing.

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