Legal question: do vegans have a right to protection against discrimination?

Helen Hall of Nottingham Law School weighs in on this topical issue, exploring what it tells us about freedom of belief more generally.

  • Last updated 19-Dec-2018 10:32:38
  • Helen Hall, Senior Lecturer and Associate Director of the Nottingham Law School Centre for Rights and Justice
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There have been a number of high profile news stories in recent months featuring vegans, and the latest involves an Employment Tribunal claim from an individual asserting that he lost his job as a result of his ethical convictions.

Jordi Casamitjana had worked for the League Against Cruel Sports, and maintains that when he discovered that the charity had pension funds invested in firms involved with animal testing, his beliefs compelled him to disclose this to colleagues.  In contrast, the League Against Cruel Sports are arguing that he was dismissed from gross misconduct, rather than his veganism. Whatever findings of fact emerge from this litigation, one interesting aspect of the media coverage is the suggestion that a ruling on the status of veganism would be a landmark decision.  Very few legal commentators would doubt that ethical vegans can claim that their beliefs are legally protected in the UK, and the case law available supports this. Not only is the freedom to hold and practically express such a worldview recognised, it is accorded the status of a human right.

When the issue was considered by Strasbourg as far back as the early 1990s, it was accepted that veganism could be a protected belief as far as Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights is concerned.  In order to qualify for protection under freedom of conscience or belief, a conviction does not have to necessarily be religious or political in nature. It must be serious and relate to some fundamental question of human life or behaviour, but there is no doubt that a veganism is capable of satisfying these criteria.  For instance, the Equality and Human Rights Commission specifically cites veganism as one of their examples of a non-religious beliefs, which comes within the umbrella of protection. 

It is fair to acknowledge that Article 9 protects expressions of belief, rather than the right to own a particular label or identity.  This means that not all people adopting a vegan lifestyle would necessarily qualify for protection. For example, if someone had opted to adopt a plant-based diet for a short period of time, because they hoped to lose weight prior to going on a beach holiday, their veganism would not be based on any profound underlying belief.   However, the individuals who describe themselves as vegan as a means of expressing their moral decision to eschew all practices which harm or exploit non-human animals, or excluding all animal products from the diet on environmental grounds, would have no difficulty coming within the shield of the Convention. Of course, it should be noted that the rights to manifest (as opposed to merely hold) beliefs is not absolute, and can be curtailed in accordance with Article 9(2).  In other words, it may be subject 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.”   

For obvious reasons, just as citizens cannot demand to practice their chosen faith completely without restraint, regardless of the cost or compromise to the interests of third parties, individuals with ethical convictions do not receive a blank cheque from society when it comes to manifesting them.  Nevertheless, establishing that a belief comes within the auspices of Article 9 is highly significant, because it means that a person has a prima facie right to act on it, and any restriction must be justified and kept to the minimum necessary. The outcome of the claim being brought by Mr Casamitjana will depend on the full facts of the case, but whether he wins or loses, it is extremely unlikely that any Tribunal would conclude that manifesting vegan beliefs was not a human right.  For many people, it is a position which comes from deep personal reflection and one in which they are fully intellectually, emotionally and ethically invested. It has far-reaching implications for every aspect of their decision-making and daily lives, and as such it more than merits human rights recognition and protection. 

Helen Hall is a Senior Lecturer and Associate Director of the Nottingham Law School Centre for Rights and Justice.

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