The Equality Act came into force in 2010 and provides protection from discrimination against employees, workers and even prospective applicants on the basis of certain characteristics the individual may hold. If you were to suffer discrimination within the workplace on the basis of one of these protected characteristics, this discrimination would be considered unlawful.
One characteristic to be afforded such protection is religion or belief, including philosophical beliefs and even a lack of belief. For such a belief to become a protected characteristic and benefit from protection from discrimination, certain criteria must be met. The belief must:
- be genuinely held;
- be a belief and not an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available;
- be a belief as to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour;
- attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance; and
- be worthy of respect in a democratic society, compatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others.
In 2009 a Tribunal decided that a belief in climate change could be considered a belief worthy of the protection from unlawful discrimination. The decision was based on the fact that the belief in question was more than just a mere opinion and had an effect on the way the individual went about their daily life. However last year it was decided that vegetarianism did not satisfy the requisite criteria and therefore would not be afforded the same protection.
On 3rd January 2020, the Employment Tribunal in Norwich ruled that ethical veganism constituted a philosophical belief. This is a momentous decision as it means ethical veganism is considered a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010 and employees and workers are therefore protected from discrimination based on such a belief.
The decisions of the Employment Tribunal are not legally binding but do provide useful guidance for subsequent decisions. Friday's decision will certainly be of great significance for the future as it may pave the way for similarly less 'traditional' beliefs to act as the foundation of a claim for unlawful discrimination, once such beliefs become more established within society.
This ruling poses interesting questions, for example in the workplace, could a shop worker who believes in ethical veganism refuse to handle meat without fear of reprisals from their employer on the basis that such beliefs are protected? Could a waiter or waitress refuse to serve customers dishes containing meat? Could you refuse to participate in the office tea round if this involves using cow's milk? The impact of this decision on daily life in the workplace remains to be seen.
Our Employment department have a wealth of experience and able to assist in your legal case. If you would like to speak to someone to discuss a particular situation we can be contacted on 01603 620508 or email us.