It is well known that, under the Equality Act 2010, individuals are protected from being discriminated against on the basis of their religion or religious belief. It may not be as well known, however, that there is a second branch of this protected characteristic – philosophical beliefs. It might be a further surprise to learn that lifestyle choices such as veganism may qualify for protection as such a belief.
What is a philosophical belief?
To be classified as a philosophical belief, a number of criteria set by case law must be met. These include that the belief must be:
- genuinely held;
- more than a mere opinion or viewpoint based on existing facts;
- pertinent to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life;
- of a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance; and
- worthy of respect in a democratic society;
Plainly, this can present a high hurdle. It may, therefore, be beneficial to consider beliefs which have passed this threshold to be classified as a philosophical belief.
In the case of Hashman v Milton Park (Dorset) Ltd, protection was given to a claimant who actively opposed fox hunting and believed that humanity should observe a moral obligation to respect and be kind to animals. Mr Hashman was successful, with the Tribunal finding that his beliefs met the criteria set out above. On consideration, the Tribunal felt that Mr Hashman thought ‘very deeply about the issues arising from his beliefs’ and ‘attempts to live his life in accord with those beliefs’.
Climate change prevention
Nicholson v Grainger Plc, concerned the dismissal of Mr Nicholson who obtained protection for his belief that it was his moral duty to avoid catastrophic climate change. Following review, the Tribunal observed that Mr Nicholson’s beliefs could ‘give rise to a moral order similar to the sort of moral orders derived from the major world religions’. Considering this, and applying the criteria listed above, the Tribunal agreed that his environmentalist views did amount to a qualifying philosophical belief.
Public service broadcasting
In Maistry v BBC, Mr Maistry, a BBC journalist, obtained protection for his philosophical belief that public service broadcasting served a ‘higher purpose’ as an independent medium for public debate and common experience. This is an interesting case as it shows that less frequently debated beliefs can still qualify for protection where the criteria are met.
Veganism is the belief that animals should not be treated as a commodity and that consuming animal products is therefore unethical. It is likely that some of the criteria listed above could be met by many vegans. For example, a vegan could genuinely hold the belief described, which will almost certainly be more than a mere opinion. Indeed, it would be fairly difficult to argue that veganism is not worthy of respect in a democratic society. However, all criteria must be met for the legislation to take effect, and the remaining criteria impose a high threshold on the ‘everyday’ vegan. To qualify for protection, a vegan needs to successfully argue that their belief is pertinent to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life, and of a sufficient level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance.
What is beyond doubt is that many more beliefs can qualify for protection as a philosophical belief than is often realised. With the Equality Act 2010 providing protection against various forms of discrimination for those with qualifying philosophical beliefs and with significant penalties for those who breach the Act’s provisions, this is an area of law that deserves awareness, and one which will no doubt develop further over time.