The Equality Act 2010 affords protections against discrimination to a wide range of people based on a range of characteristics including: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage or civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation.
The word “belief” within the Equality Act is rather broad, leaving room for interpretation. There are a wide range of beliefs which have been covered under the Equality Act since the legislation was introduced, including the topic of today’s case, ethical veganism. The case we will be discussing today (Owen V Willow Tower), considered to what extent ethical veganism was sufficient to be considered a protected belief under the Equality Act 2010, and therefore offer the individual protection from discrimination.
Why is ethical veganism a protected belief under the Equality Act 2010?
In Section 10 of the Equality Act 2010, belief is defined as “any religious or philosophical belief and a reference to belief includes a reference to a lack of belief.” The leading case for establishing whether a belief amounts to a philosophical belief is Grainger plc and others v Nicholson . A belief only amounts to being a philosophical belief eligible for protection if it:
- is genuinely held
- is not simply an opinion or view point based on the present state of information available
- concerns a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour
- attains a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance, and
- is worthy of respect in a democratic society
As a result, vegetarians or white nationalists, for example, would not qualify as having a philosophical belief protected under the Act.
There has recently been an expansion of beliefs covered under the philosophical belief characteristic, including gender critical views, climate change, and indeed even ethical veganism.
Ethical veganism meets the criteria as unlike vegetarianism, it is not simply about choice of diet. Veganism goes further than that, extending into aspects such as their clothes, hobbies, and also personal care and medicine. It is therefore a protected belief.
The claimant in this case, Ms Owen, worked as bank staff in a care home where it was decided that all staff should be vaccinated. The claimant believed that she should be exempt from having to have a COVID-19 vaccine due to the fact she followed a vegan diet. This is because the vaccine may contain animal products or be tested on animals, hence why she believed she should not have to take it. Furthermore, Ms Owen was also sceptical of the vaccine, and had concerns over both its side effects and its efficacy.
After raising a grievance with her employer, she was then dismissed for failing to comply with the legal requirement for care home staff to be vaccinated. Following her dismissal, she brought claims for both unfair dismissal and discrimination on religious or belief grounds.
Ethical veganism has previously been found to be a protected philosophical belief under the Equality Act 2010, however the Employment Tribunal had to decide whether the claimant genuinely held a belief in ethical veganism. Keep reading to find out what they decided in this particular case.
What did the Employment Tribunal decide?
The Employment Tribunal decided that there was insufficient evidence to suggest that the claimant held a genuine belief in ethical veganism. Despite following a vegan diet, as well as avoiding some non-vegan products, there were a number of reasons why her beliefs meant she did not qualify for protection under the Equality Act 2010:
- She could not confirm when she started having a belief in ethical veganism
- The claimant repeatedly stated that to her, following a vegan diet was the same as ethical veganism
- She was unable to say how her life was modified or structured to follow her belief other than her vegan diet, and some products (which she failed to provide evidence for)
- The claimant also accepted that she used products during her employment which were not vegan, however she claimed that she would always use gloves
- She gave no examples of how her life was structured to adhere to her belief in ethical veganism
- While the most significant reference to veganism was her diet, this doesn’t fulfil the criteria of ethical veganism. She did not explain how she would ensure that she was following a vegan diet or how she checked products to ensure they were vegan
- Furthermore, the claimant’s main criticisms of the vaccine were her belief that it was experimental and unsafe, rather than being connected to her veganism
Employers should be mindful of employees’ religious and philosophical beliefs, and ensure that these are accommodated where possible. However, while ethical veganism is a protected belief under the Equality Act 2010, if an employee claims to hold a protected belief but it is not genuinely held (as in this case), then this can naturally lead to complications.
While for some, Ms Owen’s belief in veganism would have been self-evident through her choice to observe a vegan diet, the distinction between ethical veganism and simply following a vegan diet is an important one. For it to be a philosophical belief, and therefore eligible to be a protected characteristic, the claimant would have had to demonstrate other areas where her alleged belief in ethical veganism was apparent.
Simply following a vegan diet was not enough to be found to hold a belief in ethical veganism, a principle which would be supported by the vast majority of the vegan community, most of whom apply their beliefs beyond their diet.
Where there is concern by an employer that a belief is not genuinely held, or doesn’t meet the requirements for protections under the Equality Act 2010, employers can check this against the qualifications outlined in the Grainger criteria above.
Lisa’s Law are specialists when it comes to employment law, and can assist your business with employment advice in such situations. Have a question about employment law? Get in touch with us today.
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