In a landmark ruling, a U.K. judge has ruled that a belief in animal rights is a philosophical belief akin to religion, and thus deserves protection under British employment law.

The judgement stemmed from a lawsuit filed by a gardener named Joe Hashman. Hashman lost his job at Orchard Park Garden Center, of Gillingham, Dorset, over his philosophical objections to bloodsports. His tireless anti-hunting activism didn’t sit well with his employers, Sheila Clarke and Ron Clarke, who are keen supporters of foxhunting.

Hashman’s efforts on behalf of animals eventually led to his dismissal. The catalyst appears to be the conviction of celebrity chef Clarissa Dickson-Wright for illegal hunting in 2000. Dickson-Wright, former co-host of the cooking program Two Fat Ladies, was convicted of attending two hare-coursing events in March 2007. Hare-coursing, according to The Times, involves hares being “driven by beaters into a field to be chased by greyhounds,” and was outlawed under the Hunting Act of 2004.

Dickson-Wright would no doubt have gotten away with her illegal activities, if it wasn’t for the brave activists who secretly filmed the hunt in progress. One of those brave activists was Joe Hashman. The day after Dickson-Wright’s conviction, he was fired from his job via email. Never one to back down, Hashman fought back by filing a lawsuit against Orchard Park Garden Center, alleging discrimination on the grounds of philosophical belief.

Last week, Judge Lawrence Guyer ruled that Joe Hashman’s beliefs deserve protection under U.K. law. “Hashman believes that people should live their lives with mindful respect for animals and we all have a moral obligation to live in a way which is kind to each other, our environment and our fellow creatures,” said Judge Guyer. “I have no hesitation in finding that he thinks very deeply about the issues arising from his beliefs and that he attempts to live his life in accord with those beliefs. I find that his beliefs are truly part of his philosophical beliefs.”

When Hashman’s dismissal first became news, several hundred people signed a petition in support of his case, asking the owners of Orchard Park Garden Center to either reinstate or settle with Joe Hashman. However, after clearing a major legal obstacle, Hashman has no interest in a settlement: “I won’t accept anything out of court. I’d rather go to the tribunal and come away with nothing than not have my case heard.”

Though an important victory, Joe Hashman’s battle isn’t completely over. This ruling simply  means he has won the right to sue Orchard Park Garden Center. A date for a full hearing has yet to be set. But Hashman is happy with how things have turned out so far. “Trying to articulate my life’s work and actions as a hunt saboteur and advocate for animals has not been easy,” he said. “At times I have felt exposed and vulnerable. But ultimately I feel vindicated and am proud to have pursued this action.”

Photo Credit: Public Domain