We Asked Vegans If They Should Be Given the Same Protections as Religious People
A tribunal next March will decide whether veganism is a philosophical or religious belief, but what do you lot think?
All photos courtesy of interviewees.
This might have been the year that veganism went mainstream, but there's still plenty of people ready to take the piss out of those living a plant-based lifestyle. Get ready to see a spike in exactly that next March, when the first court case of its kind in the UK could determine if ethical veganism will be granted the same legal rights as religion.
Animal rights activist Jordi Casamitjana has taken his former employer – which bills itself as a "vegan-friendly" animal rights' charity – to court on the grounds that he was sacked after discovering their pension fund had invested in companies involved in animal testing. "Most of my adult life, I've pursued the philosophy of ethical veganism [where followers both don't consume animals or rely on them in their daily lives, e.g. not wearing leather or fur]. It's informed my daily existence, including my career and employment," he wrote on his Crowdfunder.
The move has unsurprisingly faced ridicule, with one Twitter user likening the case to a "man who religiously drinks Scottish whisky [suing] TFL for not allowing him to drive the train while drinking whisky".
However, this isn't the first time a vegan's attempted to file a religious discrimination case. Back in 2011, a uni student in Canada filed a discrimination lawsuit with the Ontario Human Rights Commission, claiming that her professors had "sabotaged" her career for equating the value of animals to those of humans. Meanwhile, in 2013, an Ohio federal court dismissed veganism as merely an "eating habit". Chenzira v. Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center found that a hospital employee who was fired for refusing to be vaccinated for the flu (the vaccine is grown in chicken eggs) deserved protection under law.
But is the discrimination vegans might face on a par with anti-Muslim hate crime, which has risen by 40 percent over the past year? Or with the abuse faced by trans people, 70 percent of whom avoid certain places for fear of being assaulted or harassed?
Given the inevitable backlash that vegans might face ahead of the landmark case, we asked six vegans in the UK whether they should be given the same rights and protections as religion, what they hope the outcome of the court case will be and what it means to be vegan in 2018.
Allan, 35, Finance Officer, Birmingham
When a vegan says they're persecuted, sometimes I worry that they’re a little entitled and a bit privileged. I don’t necessarily think that veganism is a religion. It’s not like when you can look at the Torah and you can read it one way but someone can pick it up and read it another way. I was brought up Catholic. I used to read the Bible with others and we’d discuss what different passages meant. Veganism has only a few hard and fast rules: don’t eat animals, don’t wear animals, try to reduce harm against animals where possible and get animal products out of your life as much as possible.
I imagine the vast majority of people who call themselves religious, there wasn’t an active choice to be religious. You might choose to be more religious, or perhaps choose to attend services or a temple a lot more than people who share the same faith, but veganism is very much a choice.
What’s great about the case, though, is that if you’re getting shitted on at work because you’re a vegan, you shouldn’t have to put up with that. It can only be a good thing for people in employment, or certain situations where they’re marginalised or there’s a potential for them to be marginalised.
Allan has been a vegan for 13 years
Sima, 48, Entrepreneur, London
Mixing philosophical beliefs with religious protections rights is reckless and irresponsible. What’s to stop a meat eater saying their religion is being a carnivore? What’s to say I could sacrifice a lamb in the middle of Trafalgar Square and say my religion has protected me to do so? Just because veganism ticks all the boxes, doesn’t mean it should have the same legal protections as religion. It could create a lot of problems in having a lack of accountability.
I was brought up Catholic. I know some who do drugs and have adulterous affairs during the week, but go to church, confess and absolve themselves. Being vilified isn’t enough to turn something into a religion. I know lots of vegans who are vilified, but so are black people, brown people and gay people.
Sima has been a full-time vegan for two years
Jade, 33, Vegan business owner, London
Initially, I thought, 'Here we go again, another person using veganism to paint us in an unfavourable light.' But I hope the outcome will be that veganism is recognised as a religious belief and not a trendy fad or an extreme cult, as many people seem to believe it is. Who’s to say that a belief in God is more important than our ethical beliefs? Who decides which "belief" is more important and which should be protected? We should be afforded the same rights as [other religious groups]. It’s a way of life that deserves equal respect that other people's beliefs receive. We’re attempting to save the planet from further damage and animals from exploitation. We shouldn’t be abused for that. There’s not one faith that’s more important than another. Being vegan is an absolute joy. I’m very grateful to be part of such a fantastic community.
Jade made the move from vegetarian to vegan five years ago.
Jay, 37, Entrepreneur, London
Before it can be considered a religion, the mainstream veganism movement needs to work on its race problem. No person of Asian or African background would be afforded the privilege of chaining themselves to a commercial vehicle to save an animal. We’d go to jail or we’d get shot. But when I see white vegans do that and say, "We’re doing it for the animals," it feels disingenuous and egotistical. It’s performative. If vegans really want to make a difference, we can take the biggest political action that any of us can do: vote with your wallet. You can eat locally and avoid chain supermarkets. You can make all the changes you want without the self-serving fanfare.
The same animal rights activists who are chaining themselves to cars or protesting outside Canada Goose will look at you glibly when you ask their stance on Saudi-led air strikes in Yemen, the Flint water crisis or Black Lives Matter. It’s this that often acts as a barrier for people from communities that have historically been marginalised from the movement.
I’ve spoken out about race before and have been excommunicated by white vegan organisations. I was once put on the bill of a well-known vegan festival with a known fascist who supports Tommy Robinson. He posts stuff like "Why are Muslims even allowed in this country?" I petitioned for his removal, and succeeded, in solidarity with so many people from the intersectional vegan community. [Even so], it marked me out as a troublemaker.
I don’t see my lifestyle as a religion. People aren’t prepared to get on board with the practicality of vegan philosophy, but are prepared to believe that a spirit in the sky says that you can eat this animal but not this animal. It’s one of those words that has become so loaded. If someone bantered me, "Are you part of that vegan religion?" I would smile, but definitely not take the bait.
Jay has been vegan for three years
Lou, 23, PR & Outreach Executive, Newcastle
I hope that Jordi Casamitjana wins. Making the choice to [boycott] cruelty to animals isn’t exactly "radical". At the end of the day, veganism is also a belief system. Shouldn’t it be [more] normal to want to stop inflicting pain on animals than it is to think it’s completely acceptable? It changes how you act, behave and think about pretty much everything in your life. You have to constantly think about where your money is going. To me, religion is believing in a higher power, which veganism is not. But a philosophical belief? Definitely.
This case could perhaps set a dangerous precedent for other court cases in the future. Someone on Twitter suggested that this could lead to "Star Trek fans demanding the right to exclusively speak Klingon while at work". But is that a bad thing? Speaking Klingon is obviously a bit extreme, but why shouldn’t other minorities be heard? Challenging the status quo is how we’ve [battled to work to] overcome racism and homophobia. Why shouldn’t we take whatever steps necessary to ensure everyone is deemed equal?
Some people simply don’t understand why I’m vegan, the same way as I don’t fully understand being Catholic. I had one boss who used to introduce me as, "This is Lou, she’s a vegan." I can do with less of that. I also have family members who aren’t willing to listen or understand what the health benefits are, and how you can reduce your impact to the planet by switching to a plant-based diet. This has caused arguments in the past, but I just avoid the subject now in order to keep the peace. [Even so], I don’t need this court case to win to be able to say to people, "You’re discriminating against me."
Lou’s been a vegan since the summer of 2015
Jack, 24, Sales Consultant, Newcastle
I was sceptical when I first heard about the court case. After reading the various headlines, I found myself mirroring their little-concealed scorn. How could someone’s dietary choices be aligned with another's religious beliefs? But after reading more into the case, I am leaning towards hoping the court will rule in favour of the employee. Hinduism and Islam encourage their followers to give up certain meats. Why should someone who’s taken veganism to the nth degree be any less respected or protected?
I’ve been vegan for two years and my choice has been met with scepticism all round. [I’ve often been on the receiving end of] the classic, "Where will you get protein? What about calcium?" etc. My mates take great pleasure in calling me out if I occasionally consume something that isn’t entirely vegan accidentally or by choice. The media's current continued grouping of vegans as militant is really quite draining. It doesn’t help that the individuals asked to represent and speak on behalf of us are often at the extreme end of the spectrum – although, finding anyone who can act as a representative for a group of people from wildly different experiences and backgrounds is always going to be tricky.
Jack’s been a vegan for two years.
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.