Clearing up the confusion: whose veganism counts in UK law?

by Dr Jeanette Rowley

I have been involved in a few discussions recently about whose veganism would have the support of UK law. The discussions have been with vegans who have to no choice but take prescribed medications, and a few have been about the different emphasis individual vegans give to ‘subjective integral components’ that can be argued, on the basis of developing social and scientific literature, to come within, or relate to, the vegan philosophy. The discussion isn’t really about whether there are different veganisms: veganism has a definition. Rather, it is about the scope of law to protect people from discriminatory treatment in specific situations and for specific reasons.

Typically, we talk about vegans being protected in law because the European Court of Human Rights found veganism to be within the scope of protection under provisions for the right to freedom of conscience as provided by the European Convention on Human Rights. In the view of the court, a person who is vegan because they do not want to participate in animal exploitation has sincerely held ethical convictions. For simplicity, I will refer to this view as ethical veganism. The convictions of ethical vegans require practical manifestation on a daily basis. Therefore, they need to be protected from any unlawful interference.

Interference is justified if it is grounded by the necessary laws of a democratic society. Such laws can be about health, public order or morality or those that protect the rights and freedoms of other people.

For the most part, it is difficult to see how interference with ethical veganism could be justified. There are times though, when law will prevail and impact on the practice of vegans. For example, a court might decide that a person’s ethical veganism has to give way to health requirements and it can pass a judgment that it is in the best interests of a vegan to undergo vaccination. A court can, in certain circumstances, insist that vaccination takes place. Does this make the ethical vegan concerned no longer a vegan or not vegan for the purposes of law? The short answer is no, it does not. A vegan who receives vaccination under duress, is still an ethical vegan, remains so in the eyes of the law and retains their right not to have their daily practice of veganism interfered with in other, unlawful ways.

The same is true for vegans who undergo vaccination voluntarily, or who take medications containing ingredients that are derived from non-human animals. Let’s look at the definition. Veganism is

A philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.

In the definition, we see that vegans aim to live a life that seeks to exclude animal exploitation as far as is possible and practicable. If someone who has lived, as an ethical vegan, then finds themselves in the position of needing medical interventions and they have no choice but to take prescribed medications, it does not make them any less a practising vegan, does not mean that they support the continued exploitation of nonhuman animals or that they rescind their ethical convictions: and certainly not in the eyes of the law. It would be absurd to suggest otherwise. In these contexts, vegans retain the right to be recognised as vegan in the eyes of the law and to remain beneficiaries of strict limitations on justified interference with their vegan practice.

Alongside the human rights support for veganism, and the prohibition on discrimination under the Convention, we have, in the UK, the Equality Act 2010* which consolidates a large body of equality law. Although the Act itself does not cite its relationship to human rights provisions, equality law is grounded by the principle that it should be interpreted in the light of the Convention and its case law. Accordingly, UK tribunal deliberations draw on the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights. In making decisions about whose beliefs qualify for protection under UK equality law, the following criteria are considered:

  • The belief must be genuinely held.
  • It must be a belief and not… an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available.
  • 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.
  • It must be worthy of respect in a democratic society, not incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others…

This set of criteria has been seen to provide far reaching protection. For example, a belief in manmade climate change can be within the scope of protection, so can a belief that fox hunting is morally wrong, and even a belief in the purpose of public service broadcasting.

What previous tribunal cases highlight is the broad scope of current law to protect people from unfair treatment and discrimination. They show that the scope of the UK Equality Act is extensive and applicable to all those who feel unfairly treated or discriminated against because of underlying beliefs that direct their lives. Ethical vegans already have some legal standing granted by the European Court and this has been cited by judges deliberating over UK equality cases. Given the broad reach of UK equality law, it would not be surprising if a UK court eventually finds in favour of vegan applicants and, quite possibly, on various grounds.

The strength of equality law is that it is pertains to the principle of non-discrimination. Its mission is to be inclusive and to facilitate and accommodate a plural society. It is, thus, feasible that a tribunal could hear a case, brought by a vegan who claims to have been unfairly treated or discriminated against because, for example, they had an overriding belief that veganism is important for global food security or the health of our shared environment. We cannot know in advance if such cases would be successful, if positive outcomes would confirm the scope of protection for vegans generally or just confirm protection for those with the same specific belief under discussion. This would depend on the specific circumstances that determine how the case is presented and argued. For example, in an employment tribunal case, a vegan hunt protestor successfully argued that he was fired from his job because he was against fox hunting. Though it was acknowledged in court that his beliefs about fox hunting were related to his broader convictions as a vegan, he was not arguing that he had been fired on account of being vegan but because he was a hunt protestor. The tribunal decided that a belief that fox hunting is morally wrong can be protected under the Equality Act, and that he was unfairly dismissed from his job.

We simply do not know what kind of cases may come before the courts nor how the court will reason through specific matters, but we do know that vegans explain their beliefs, not only in the traditional and historical terms of nonhuman suffering that we referred to earlier as ethical veganism, but also, taking account of developing social theory and scientific evidence, they argue that veganism contributes to a better social justice, a better environment, can help protect the climate, the ocean or they argue that veganism meets better the requirements for good human health.

The point to keep in mind is that the Equality Act is not discriminatory. It is open to all vegans regardless of necessary nuances, the emphasis given to issues that direct a vegan’s daily-lived-practice, the way they might subjectively explain their veganism as life-directing, and to those who experience unfair treatment or discrimination because of a component belief integral to their veganism.

As far as court cases go, every case is decided on its own merits, and there is, apparently, no pre-conceived judicial limit on what constitutes a protected belief or the scope of protection for qualifying beliefs. Various subjective integral components of veganism can be life-directing and though the suffering of nonhuman animals remains central in the definition of the vegan philosophy, a tribunal will hear arguments and explanations from unfairly treated vegan applicants on the specifics that apply. It will decide, in any event, with reference to established criteria such as that set out above.

In short, all vegans, however nuanced, have the same legal standing as anyone else regardless of whether you take prescribed medications, didn’t throw out the carpet when you became vegan, take a case of unfair treatment as an environmental protestor or have no alternative but to wear regulation issue uniform items in your employment. UK equality law, in the area of protection to live according to moral convictions without being subjected to unfair or discriminatory treatment, is applicable to all, in a variety of contexts and concerns both ethical vegan and intersectional beliefs of conscience.

*The EA 2010 applies to England, Scotland and Wales.