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Ethical Veganism and Protected Beliefs

on Thursday, 06 July 2023.

In this case, the Employment Tribunal found that a care home worker who refused to have the COVID-19 vaccine did not have a genuine belief in ethical veganism.

What Were the Facts of the Case?

In the case of Owen v Willow Tower Opco 1 Ltd, the claimant worked as bank staff in a care home. She was unvaccinated against COVID-19 and raised a grievance after the care home introduced a mandatory vaccination requirement. She said that she followed a vegan diet and believed she should be exempt from needing the vaccine. She also raised health and safety concerns about the vaccine and its potential side effects.

Following an occupational health referral, which confirmed she had no medical reason not to be vaccinated, her grievance was not upheld and she was dismissed in November 2021. She brought claims for unfair dismissal and religion or belief discrimination.

Is Ethical Veganism a Protected Belief?

In order for a philosophical belief to be protected in law, it must meet the following five criteria (the Grainger criteria):

  • 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 be incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others.

Case law has established that a belief in ethical veganism can be a protected belief. However, ethical veganism extends much further than just following a vegan diet. It requires the person holding the belief to modify many areas of their lifestyle in recognition of their beliefs.

Were the Claimants Beliefs Protected?

The Tribunal did not accept that the claimant in this case held her belief to the extent required to meet the Grainger criteria set out above. Whilst she followed a vegan diet and avoided using some non-vegan products, she could not explain how she had modified her life to follow her belief. Her main criticism of the vaccine during her employment seemed to relate to concerns about its efficacy and safety, rather than concerns linked to her veganism. On this basis, the Tribunal considered it impossible to find that the claimant held a genuine belief in ethical veganism. The Tribunal dismissed the discrimination claim.

Learning Points

This is a first instance decision, so is not binding on other Tribunals. It is nevertheless a useful reminder of the Grainger criteria and the high threshold that will apply in order to demonstrate that a philosophical belief is protected in law.

For more information or advice on the Grainger criteria, please contact Sian Knight-James in our Employment law team on 0117 314 5331. Alternatively, please complete the form below.

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