For many years UK law has provided protection from discrimination through rules concerning “religion or belief”. In 2009, the draft Code of Practice produced by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), attempted to explain the way in which “belief” should be understood for the purposes of applying current equality legislation. “Belief”, it stated, could be described by reference to “the ethical commitment central to veganism”.
For the first time, the valid coherent logical framework of principles which underpin the animal free lifestyle, was acknowledged at the level of one of our most important and significant social organisations. Not only was veganism officially validated and legitimised by explaining “belief” in terms of our ethical commitment, but this statement, from such a high office, gave credence and legitimacy to the fundamental principles of the animal free lifestyle.
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Subsequent to this 2009 draft Code of Practice, and implementation of the 2010 Equality Act however, the final version of the Code of Practice for interpreting equality legislation disappointingly omits the example of the vegan lifestyle as representative of legal “belief”. Belief itself remains protected, as long as the belief affects how a person lives their life or perceives the world. But rather than veganism being the defining concept for legal belief as in the 2009 draft Code of Practice, our world view has been demoted in significance so that in 2011, it now appears that only where a vegan is limited from following their particular diet, it may amount to mere indirect discrimination.
What is interesting about the omission of the “ethical commitment central to veganism” as the example used to explain “belief”, is that the criteria to be satisfied remains the same, subject to minor alterations to a small proportion of the text. The text of the 2009 draft Code of Practice (2011 adaptation in italics), states that for belief to be protected under equality legislation:
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- It must be genuinely held;
- It must be a belief and not an opinion or viewpoint based on information available at the moment; (2011 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; (2011 and must not be incompatible with human dignity…)
- It must be compatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others.
As can be seen, the alteration to the second point uses slightly different vocabulary but retains the original meaning. The only other alteration is the combination of the last two points. Neither alteration changes the criteria sufficiently for it to no longer apply to vegan belief.
By exemplifying the criteria with reference to the animal free lifestyle, the EHRC elevated the status of veganism and clearly proposed that vegan belief should be protected in law from discriminatory practices.
Many of us will have experienced discrimination of some type: Indirect perhaps, often subtle; sometimes direct. Just last week, a senior manager in my department declared to me that veganism is not a protected characteristic in law. This comment was in response to my suggestion that in order to be a more inclusive department, management and policy makers might consider the dietary requirements of staff when distributing chocolate bars especially since they promote their “inclusive, welcoming practice” as a demonstration of their “excellence” in their application for a United Kingdom excellence award. A few days later the same member of staff bought large quantities of animal based sweets for “everyone”. I wondered if she would have been more inclusive for diabetics or those with some kind of dietary intolerances.
Being told that the beliefs that underpin my animal free lifestyle were exempt from current equality legislation was alarming. Though not particularly interested in receiving a dairy free chocolate bar in order to feel welcome, included, or appreciated, I remembered that I had previously been asked to remove the complimentary bottle of wine from my desk in order to show the required departmental respect for my Muslim colleague. One Muslim in the department and one vegan, but the beliefs of one were considered to be superior to those of another. Incidentally, my animal free beliefs have informed my lifestyle for longer than my Muslim colleague has been alive.
What is significant about this situation, and that of many others like it, is the extent to which we as vegans often tolerate inequality and discrimination quietly. Over time we develop sophisticated coping strategies; but they are strategies which require us to exercise significant restraint. Strategies which require us to accept exclusion, humiliation; subtle innuendo, direct challenges about health and energy levels, and even the insulting doubting questions about our synthetic shoes or bags. We have become skilful in response, putting our views forward respectfully, diplomatically and tactfully. Trying our best to inform and educate those around us.
Perhaps it’s the gentle compassionate nature of the Vegan to refrain from entering into the unpleasant hostile environment of complaint and adversarial redress. Perhaps the whole process of stating our case has felt impossible given the imbalance of power from the level of individual interaction, to practices which support and maintain institutionalised objectification of carnism (Joy, 2010). Whatever the reasons, vegans have not been good at coming forward to promote the validity and legitimacy of the animal free lifestyle through the use of assertion: assertion of the right to be treated fairly and equally.
The statement made by the Equality and Human Rights Commission in the draft code of 2009 prescribed social acceptance of veganism as a valid belief system. In so doing, vegans could feel empowered to raise the profile of their valid claims for equal treatment, and demand fair treatment in employment and social interaction. Though the example has been removed in the 2011 Code of Practice, it is imperative that we keep in mind that the defining criteria which went alongside the example definition of belief, remains the same. Further the 2011 Act clearly provides protection from discrimination where someone follows a “particular diet”.
The 2010 Equality Act aims to promote diversity. Law is finally addressing its power to promote and maintain dominant ideologies and can be seen to be breaking down its own internal institutional power to objectify and discriminate. Law has been instrumental in transforming social attitudes: towards women and homosexuality for example. But in getting law to address inequalities and imbalance, those who experience discrimination have to struggle for acknowledgement.
In the 2011 list of criteria to be satisfied for belief to be protected in law, point two states: “the present state of information available”. This ought to be regarded as a catalyst for debate, as we continue to articulate the ways in which carnism is promoted as “normal, natural and right”, which as Joy (2010) observes, is simply dominant ideology. Veganism is supported by valid scientific evidence, professional medical opinion and moral philosophy. Moreover, the present state of information available also highlights that carnism as dominant ideology is entrenched in, and promoted, through our social institutions: the education system, the health service, and most of all the legal system. Relying on social acceptance of the view that what is legal is right, law as a powerful institution has the power to objectify carnism and perpetuate the invisibility of its existence as belief system. By remaining unchallenged, law ensures that this dominant ideology is maintained at all levels.
The ECHR offers guidance on interpretation of “belief” for the purposes of equality legislation. By originally giving the example of the animal free lifestyle as one which embodies the characteristics for legal “belief”, the ECHR has set the wheels in motion for enhanced critical analysis of equality legislation, and debate, regarding the way in which the courts may decide future discrimination cases.
Subsequently the time is right for vegans to take the advantage in this new era of vegan articulation and equality legislation. Though “belief” in law is still unclear and vague, the example given for interpretation was not, and the defining criteria clearly refer to veganism, despite removal of the defining example. It is on this basis that we should now promote our equality in all social situations where previously we may have kept quiet. We must now use the example of what living according to “belief” is to challenge the imbalance of power and elevate the status of the animal free lifestyle. This challenge must be on two levels: on one level, the continuation of the intellectual articulation of vegan belief as a sensible, logical, advantageous and workable human belief system; and on the second level, a serious and direct challenge to law’s devaluation and unfair relegation of defining ethical principles from which we perceive our world. Perhaps the time has come to develop our confidence and confront this imbalance of power at the highest level. This may in some cases mean taking employers to court to test legal principles. However unpleasant this may seem, it is through case precedents that law will begin to clarify and define principles for practice which can then promote vegan equality.
The 2010 Equality Act aims to promote diversity, and encourage social acceptance of individual difference. Further, Government has said that cultural attitudes must change. Consequently, regardless of whether or not we have in our favour a defining example that refers to the animal free lifestyle written into the Code of Practice, the courts have a duty to interpret the legislation to promote fairness in social interaction and impose a duty of responsibility to allow, and provide for, diversity. It is through successful case outcomes that vegans will experience necessary legal change and through legal change dominant ideologies are broken down effecting faster social change.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission. (December, 2009). Employment Statutory Code of Practice, Draft for Consultation. www.equalityhumanrights.com
The Equality and Human Rights Commission. (2011). Equality Act 2010 Code of Practice. Employment Statutory Code of Practice. www.equalityhumanrights.com
Joy, M. (2010). Why we love dog eat pigs and wear cows. An Introduction to Carnism. San Francisco, CA: Conari Press.