An employment tribunal in England has ruled that ethical veganism—the refusal to consume animal products in any form—is equivalent to a religion or a philosophical belief and is entitled to protection under antidiscrimination laws.
Jordi Casamitjana, the ethical vegan, took his employer, a charity called the League Against Cruel Sports, to the tribunal, claiming that the organization dismissed him because of his beliefs. The charity denies this. It dismissed him, it said, because of gross misconduct: he publicly revealed that the charity had invested pension funds in companies that performed animal testing.
The tribunal has yet to decide whether Casamitjana was dismissed because of his beliefs. At first glance, it seems to me unlikely that he was, even if his beliefs were what led him to behave as he did. But the very idea that a tribunal should feel competent to divide beliefs into those both truly philosophical and not inimical to a democratic society—the criteria laid down by the law that entitle them to special protection—and those that don’t meet these specifications is worrying. It amounts to a virtual licensing or certification of beliefs, akin to a seal of good housekeeping that brings legal privileges. It confers on the courts both the right and the duty to decide what beliefs are compatible with democracy and what beliefs are not. This is a recipe for endless disputation, to the great advantage of lawyers, no doubt, but to the disadvantage of the peace of society.
If the tribunal rules that Casamitjana’s conduct, because it was motivated by beliefs legally protected from discrimination, was therefore itself legally protected from discrimination, chaos could follow. A cashier in a supermarket who refused to handle a product of a kind forbidden by her religion could not be dismissed because of her refusal. If a company fired such a worker and claimed that it was justified in doing so because willingness to handle the product was a condition of employment, it might be argued that the condition of employment was itself inherently discriminatory. A church would not be able to dismiss a pastor who advertised the fact that he was now an atheist because atheism is a philosophical belief compatible with democracy.
Perhaps it is inglorious for a charity opposed to cruel animal sports to invest in companies that perform animal testing (though, of course, sport and laboratory testing are different activities, with different justifications). But it is also inglorious that a man who indulges in the public disclosure of deleterious information about his employer should demand continued employment, using highly divisive legal protections as an instrument of coercion. Talk about wanting your cake—no doubt gluten-free—and eating it!