When is a philosophical belief protected?

What is required in order for a philosophical belief to fall within the Equality Act protections, and what lessons should employers learn from recent cases?

3 January 2019

An Employment Tribunal has found that ‘ethical vegans’ are protected from discrimination, on the basis that ethical veganism falls within the protected characteristic of religion or belief under the Equality Act 2010.

With the number of people following a vegan diet and lifestyle continuing to increase, this is an interesting decision and certainly one that employers should be aware of.

In recent years Tribunals have found that a belief in Scottish independence is also considered a philosophical belief, and therefore entitled to protection from discrimination. 

Today’s decision could open the door for others who hold ethical beliefs to seek protection under the Equality Act - for example, climate change campaigners. 

However, philosophical belief discrimination is an extremely difficult area for Tribunals, and whether a belief is protected depends upon the individual circumstances of each case. We will watch developments in this case with interest.

The decision will not be binding on other Tribunals.

The key criteria for determining whether a belief falls within the scope of the Equality Act is set out in the case of Grainger v Nicholson:

  • The belief must be genuinely held;
  • The belief must be an actual belief and not just an opinion or viewpoint;
  • The belief must relate to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour;
  • The belief must attain a certain level of seriousness; and
  • The belief must be worthy of respect in a democratic society and not be incompatible with human dignity and/or conflict with the fundamental rights of others.

Where an employee’s belief clashes with an employer’s business requirements, the employer will require to consider the potential for unlawful discrimination before acting.  Direct discrimination because of religion or belief is not justifiable and will be unlawful. 

However, indirect discrimination (which is more likely to be the issue in most cases) may be justified and therefore lawful depending on the circumstances.

Perhaps unsurprisingly given the nature of the employer in this case, it chose not to contest the argument that veganism could amount to a philosophical belief under the Equality Act. 

Its position is that the claimant’s veganism was not the reason for his dismissal, which they attribute to gross misconduct. 

While the claimant has succeeded in establishing that his veganism is worthy of protection, this only opens the door to a legal claim - he must still show that his veganism was the cause for his dismissal to have ultimate success.