On the 17th and 18th of October, Norwich Employment Tribunal will consider evidence from Jordi Casamitjana and witnesses, defending the view that veganism is a belief that satisfies the protection criteria of equality law.
In my day to day work, I provide information about veganism and law, and explain why veganism comes within the scope of the criteria for protection. While I am delighted to support Jordi as a witness, the employment tribunal process does not allow me, personally, to present legal evidence.
Just ahead of the proceedings, therefore, I would like to support Jordi by assessing the convictions of vegans against the legal criteria for protection and offer some relevant additional information that explains why I am very optimistic for positive outcome.
The question to be answered: Is veganism a belief for the purposes of equality law?
The Equality Act provides protection for individuals with qualifying beliefs under the protected characteristic ‘religion or belief’. To answer the question above, we must explain veganism and then determine whether it qualifies as a non-religious ‘philosophical’ belief within the legal context.
1. What is veganism?
The Vegan Society states that veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of and cruelty to animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.
It is universally acknowledged that animals can feel pleasure and pain, and that caring about how we treat animals is important.
It is unlawful to be cruel to animals, and those who cause animals to suffer can be prosecuted for criminal offences. Therefore, we can say that veganism is a manifestation of a universally recognised social, moral and legal value.
To qualify for the protection of law an applicant must show that veganism meets the following requirements:
- The belief must be genuinely held.
- It must be a belief and not... an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available.
- It must be a belief as to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour.
- It must attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance.
- It must be worthy of respect in a democratic society, be not incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others.
Each of the five requirements listed above will now be dealt with in turn.
2. The Evidence
2.1 The belief must be genuinely held.
Veganism is a belief in the moral standing of nonhuman animals. Vegans live their lives upholding the recognised value that it is wrong to cause harm to animals. Jordi lives his life as an ethical vegan and states that his convictions have informed his daily existence, including his career and employment choices. Jordi does not eat animals, nor does he wear their skin or hair. He also believes that animals should not be used for entertainment. By stating that his convictions inform his daily life choices, Jordi is highlighting how vegans live every day of their lives: they constantly make choices and decisions, in all areas of their lives on a daily basis, to avoid participating in the exploitation of nonhuman animals as far as practical and possible. A reference to veganism informing his daily choices, along with supporting evidence, proves that Jordi aligns his practical life circumstances with his sincerely held convictions, thus demonstrating that his beliefs are genuinely held.
2.2 It must be a belief and not an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available.
I will address this requirement in three parts by looking at the definitions of ‘belief’, ‘opinion’ and ‘viewpoint’.
a) What is a belief?
The Cambridge Dictionary defines ‘belief’ as a feeling of being certain that something is true.
b) What is an opinion?
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, opinions are thoughts or beliefs that people have. An opinion can be a judgement based on special knowledge, and it can be an estimation of the merit of a person or thing. These explanations show the close relationship of the two words ‘belief ‘and ‘opinion’ but exploring the definition of opinion further shows that the word ‘opinion’ refers to views held with confidence but are not substantiated by positive knowledge or proof. The website Dictionary.com, explains that an opinion could be a belief or judgement that rests on insufficient grounds to produce complete certainty.
Jordi’s commitment to ethical veganism is not based on opinion because his beliefs are certain knowledge substantiated by a wealth of historical, respected literature on the suffering of animals, scientific literature on their sentience and bio-psycho-social needs, and scientific evidence that the dietary element of veganism addresses environmental concerns and supports a healthy planet. Some of this knowledge is recognised in our laws. For example, the Treaty of Amsterdam recognises that animals are sentient and environmental and conservation law is well-established as being grounded by reliable science.
c) What is a viewpoint?
From an examination of the various entries in the dictionary for ‘viewpoint’, this term seems to imply that there can be different points of view resulting from the merits of arguments presented. It is undisputable that animals suffer and this is recognised by the fact that we have numerous treaties and welfare laws registering our concern for animals, their environments and their sentiency. For example, the merits of the argument about the suffering of dairy cows, who cry for their babies for many days, were taken very seriously in the Brambell Report many decades ago and led to legislative changes regarding the treatment of cows. Alternative viewpoints have no merit because it is now a criminal offence to cause an animal to suffer.
Since the merits of arguments about animal suffering influence legislation, we can be certain that opposing viewpoints have no merit. When convictions are grounded in facts and evidence, and represented in law, they go beyond the threshold of ‘viewpoint’ and represent a widespread social and moral value that is given the protection of law. Vegan convictions cannot, therefore, be referred to as based on viewpoints because veganism is a manifestation of the already accepted social, moral and legal value of not causing harm to animals. Vegans practice the established principle that it is morally wrong to harm animals.
On the basis of the arguments I present above, the convictions held by vegans are based on certainty and truth and cannot be described as opinion or viewpoint. Jordi also explains that his convictions impact on the choices and decisions he makes in all areas of his life which means that his beliefs and values are not only ethical, true, logical, rational and reasonable, but are also character defining and life directing. This means that vegan convictions also have the depth and strength of religious beliefs.
2.3 It must be a belief as to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour.
The beliefs of vegans concern weighty and substantial aspects of human life and behaviour including:
- The moral standing of nonhuman animals and their basic rights.
- The duties we have to vulnerable sentient beings.
- The nature of oppression and inclusive justice.
- The role of compassion in human society.
- Our responsibility for the environment.
- The paramount international recognition of the right to freedom of conscience to care for nonhuman animals and our shared environment.
We can conclude that the beliefs of vegans concern multiple issues that are weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour.
2.4 It must attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance.
- The beliefs of vegans are grounded in scientific evidence and are cogent regarding the sentient status of nonhuman animals and the harms they suffer at human hands.
- Vegan beliefs are serious because they concern fundamental issues about human life, behaviour and justice for all.
- Vegans may come to veganism through concern for nonhuman animals, environmental issues, health, or views about intersecting oppression which means vegan beliefs are cohesive. Vegans form associations all around the world and promote common values.
- The beliefs of vegans are important for a variety of reasons noted in 2.3 above and concern various weighty and substantial aspects of human life and behaviour. Vegan voices bring the suffering of nonhuman animals to be heard in our democracy.
It is clear that vegans hold beliefs that are cogent, serious, cohesive and important.
2.5 It must be worthy of respect in a democratic society, be not incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others.
- The beliefs of vegans are worthy of respect in a democratic society because they are logical, reasonable, rational, based on evidence and represent the legally recognised moral standing of sentient nonhuman animals.
- Vegan beliefs are entirely compatible with human dignity because they revolve around justice, compassion, concern, respect and care. These values are universally acknowledged and socially valued.
- Vegan beliefs do not conflict with any fundamental rights of others because there are no fundamental rights to cause harm to nonhuman animals or to the environment.
- Veganism is worthy of respect in a democracy for other reasons too. For example, veganism has been accepted as relevant to the fundamental right to freedom of conscience, concerns personal bodily integrity, the right to freedom of expression, and the right to association.
It is clear, therefore, that veganism is worthy of respect in a democratic society. It is entirely compatible with human dignity and presents no conflicts of fundamental rights.
We can see, then, that veganism satisfies the criteria set out above. Vegans hold beliefs that are true, grounded in scientific facts, socially valued and which generate subsequent moral and legal duties concerning the treatment of animals and the environment. These beliefs are genuinely held by vegans as is evidenced by their daily vegan practice.
3. Additional Evidence
In addition to satisfying the five elements of the legal test, we should also note that the origin of the right to freedom of belief is enshrined in international law to ensure that we have the freedom to follow our moral orientation. This principle has been taken seriously in Europe and veganism has been found to be within the legal meaning of the human right to freedom of belief (sometimes called Article 9, ‘freedom of conscience’). This was confirmed in proceedings in the early 1990s (H v United Kingdom (1993) 16 EHRR (CD) 44). These facts are important because the provision for the protection of non-religious philosophical belief in our equality law is directly related to Article 9 of the Convention, the human right to freedom of belief to ensure compliance with the established moral and legal principle of being able to live according to our ethical compass. In addition, the elements of the legal test above are drawn from human rights cases that discuss this primary human right.
In my day to day work and that done in collaboration with members of The Vegan Society’s International Rights Network, I offer the following general summary of evidence to support the legal protection of vegans.
Universal Declaration of Human Rights (foundational declaration to law)
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
- Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.
- No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.
- Freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.
- The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.
European Convention on Human Rights
Freedom of thought, conscience and religion
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.
Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others
Prohibition of discrimination
The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this Convention shall be secured without discrimination on any ground such as sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status.
The Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA)
The HRA creates obligations to give effect to the rights contained in the Convention. Section 6 makes it unlawful for a public body to act in a way that is incompatible with a convention right.
Equality Act 2010
This Act is informed by the EU principle of non-discrimination which reflects the importance of fundamental rights, the significance of provisions contained in the ECHR and the case law of the ECtHR [Council Directive 2000/78/EC, Preamble (1) and (4)].
Provisions for ‘belief’ should be consistent with Article 9 principles and case outcomes. (Explanatory Notes to the Equality Act 2010, Section 10, paras 51-52).
Section 10 makes a belief a protected characteristic. Belief means ‘any religious or philosophical belief or reference to belief, including a reference to a lack of belief.’
Section 13 makes it unlawful to treat someone less favourably due to their belief.
Section 19 makes it unlawful to apply a criterion, provision or practice which is discriminatory to a person’s belief and which is not a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.
2. Legal cases
H v United Kingdom (1993) 16 EHRR CD 44
A prisoner did not want to work in a print shop because he assumed the dyes were not vegan. Veganism was accepted as coming within the scope of Article 9 ECHR. The UK did not contest, and the case reports shows that vegan convictions presented no conceptual difficulties.
Jakóbski v Poland App No 18429/06 (ECtHR 7 December 2010)
This case was about the provision of suitable food according to ‘compassion for all living beings’. The court states that dietary practice is a direct expression of beliefs.
See also Vartic v Romania (no. 2) App No 14150/08 (ECtHR 17 December 2013).
R (Williamson) v Secretary of State for Education and Employment  2 AC 246
Lord Walker commented that vegetarianism is an uncontroversial example of what could constitute a belief within the legal meaning.
Grainger Plc v Nicholson  ICR 360
In line with ECtHR criteria, this case defined philosophical belief under the Equality Act as
- genuinely held;
- a belief, not an evidence-based opinion or viewpoint;
- related to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour;
- cogent, serious, cohesive and important; and
- worthy of respect in a democratic society, not incompatible with human dignity and not incompatible with the fundamental rights of others.
…ECHR jurisprudence is directly material and the limitations on the concept and extent of a philosophical belief can be derived from that, without the need to place any additional limitation on the nature or source of the belief.
Hashman v Milton Park (Dorset) Ltd  ET 3105555/2009 (31 January 2011):
This case involved a vegan that worked at a garden centre. He was fired for his views on fox hunting. Relying on Grainger, the judge summarised the philosophical belief in question as follows:
They derive from the sanctity of life and animal welfare. They affect every area of his life. His beliefs are cogent, serious, coherent and important
The judge found that the claimant lived his life in accordance with his beliefs (including veganism) and therefore they amounted to a philosophical belief both within the ordinary sense of the word and within the meaning of The Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003, which adheres to the principle of Article 9 ECHR.
General Municipal and Boilermakers Union v Henderson  UKEAT/0073/14/DM
Simler J, the Employment Appeals Tribunal President, said:
‘The law does not accord special protection for one category of belief and less protection for another. All qualifying beliefs are equally protected. Philosophical beliefs may be just as fundamental or integral to a person's individuality and daily life as are religious beliefs.'
Human Rights Committee
General Comment No. 22: The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion ( Art. 18) CCPR/C/21/Rev.1/Add.4
- The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion (which includes the freedom to hold beliefs) in article 18.1 is far-reaching and profound; it encompasses freedom of thought on all matters, personal conviction and the commitment to religion or belief, whether manifested individually or in community with others. The Committee draws the attention of States parties to the fact that the freedom of thought and the freedom of conscience are protected equally with the freedom of religion and belief. The fundamental character of these freedoms is also reflected in the fact that this provision cannot be derogated from, even in time of public emergency, as stated in article 4.2 of the Covenant.
- Article 18 protects theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief. The terms “belief” and “religion” are to be broadly construed. Article 18 is not limited in its application to traditional religions or to religions and beliefs with institutional characteristics or practices analogous to those of traditional religions. The Committee therefore views with concern any tendency to discriminate against any religion or belief for any reason, including the fact that they are newly established, or represent religious minorities that may be the subject of hostility on the part of a predominant religious community.
European Union princinple of Equality Treatment
EU equal treatment legislation requires Member States to set up equality bodies. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has a statutory duty (under EA 2006) to monitor UK implementation of human rights and equality measures. It disseminates information to wider society about equality and human rights obligations and includes veganism as an example of a qualifying belief.
European Court of Human Rights
The European Court of Human Rights Guide on the Article 9 right to freedom of religion or belief includes explains how the court has dealt with veganism.
The evidence presented illustrates how veganism can be argued to be a belief within the legal meaning. It shows how it has already been accepted as such, and how it is acknowledged and respected in law and relevant guidance on the application of legal principles. In my mind, there is no question that Jordi, and all practicing vegans, hold a qualifying belief.
By Dr Jeanette Rowley