375: Is ethical veganism a protected belief under the Equality Act 2010?
A philosophical belief will only be protected under the anti-discrimination provisions of the Equality Act 2010 if it satisfies the five-part test set out in the 2010 case of Grainger plc v Nicholson:
- The belief must be genuinely held.
- It must be a belief, not an opinion or viewpoint.
- 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.
- The belief must be worthy of respect in a democratic society, not incompatible with human dignity and not in conflict with the fundamental rights of others.
In Free Miles v The Royal Veterinary College, an Employment Tribunal (the Tribunal) recently held that an employee’s belief in ethical veganism was not protected because she supported breaking the law in order to expose and alleviate animal suffering.
Ms Free Miles was a veterinary nurse employed by the Royal Veterinary College. She was arrested in connection with alleged burglaries by the Animal Liberation Front and the police found a sick turkey at her flat which she said she had rescued. Ms Free Miles was subsequently summarily dismissed by the College because of her connection with an extreme animal rights group that endorsed law breaking, and her participation in illegal activities including trespass and theft. She brought an Employment Tribunal claim of direct and indirect philosophical belief discrimination, relying on her belief in ethical veganism. Her belief included a moral obligation to take positive action to reduce animal suffering, such as trespassing to remove animals.
The Tribunal held that Ms Free Miles’ belief could not be protected under the Equality Act because it included acting in breach of the law and interfering with the property rights of others. Laws were made by democratically elected representatives and had to be obeyed by all citizens. It was not open to individuals to decide which laws to obey and disobey. Her belief was not worthy of respect in a democratic society and therefore failed the fifth element of the Grainger plc v Nicholson test.
This is a first instance decision and therefore not binding on other tribunals but is a useful reminder that the Grainger criteria will be strictly applied in philosophical belief claims. Case law has established that the scope of protected philosophical beliefs is potentially very wide, including for example, beliefs relating to climate change, anti-fox hunting, and Scottish independence. As the Tribunal pointed out in this case, a more usual belief in ethical veganism which encompasses the convictions that humans should not eat, wear, use for sport, experiment on or profit from animals would very probably have been protected. The Tribunal also suggested that it might have reached the same conclusion if Ms Free Miles’ belief in taking positive action to alleviate animal suffering had been limited to lawful action.
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