Vegetarianism is not a philosophical belief

Conisbee v Crossley Farms Ltd

Vegetarianism is a ‘lifestyle choice’ and, as such, not a belief which qualifies for protection under the Equality Act.

Under the Equality Act 2010, discrimination on the grounds of a protected characteristic, such as religion or belief, is unlawful. The explanatory notes to the Act clarify what amounts to a protected characteristic under the category of philosophical beliefs as having the following criteria:

  • The belief must be genuinely held and not a mere opinion or viewpoint on the present state of information available.
  • The belief must be a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour.
  • The belief must attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance and be worth of respect in a democratic society.
  • The belief must be compatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of other.

Background

Mr Conisbee worked as a waiter at a hotel. He is a vegetarian. After less than two years’ service he resigned after being told off for not wearing an ironed shirt. He brought a claim for discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief, asserting that he’d been ridiculed at work for not eating meat. His colleagues gave him snacks which he later discovered had been contaminated with meat-based products. His employer didn’t dispute that he was a vegetarian and that he had a genuine belief in his vegetarianism. They simply argued that being a vegetarian cannot amount to being a protected characteristic. The issue came before the tribunal at a preliminary hearing.

Tribunal decision

The tribunal rejected Mr Conisbee’s claim.

Agreeing with the employer’s argument, the tribunal held that there were many reasons people might not eat meat, for example as a lifestyle choice, and that vegetarianism as a belief must have a ‘similar status or cogency to religious beliefs’, which it did not have. Holding a belief relating to an important aspect of human life of behaviour was ‘not enough in itself’.

Link to judgment: https://www.bailii.org/uk/cases/UKET/2019/3335357_2018.html

Comment

In its decision the tribunal hinted however that veganism (as opposed to vegetarianism) may well qualify as a belief capable of protection. It commented that, while the reasons for being a vegetarian differ greatly among vegetarians (e.g. lifestyle, health, diet), the reasons for being a vegan appear to be largely the same:

‘Vegans simply do not accept the practice under any circumstances of eating meat, fish or dairy products, and have distinct concerns about the way animals are reared, the clear belief that killing and eating animals is contrary to a civilised society and also against climate control. There you can see a clear cogency and cohesion in vegan belief, which appears contrary to vegetarianism.'

Earlier this year we conducted a survey looking at whether vegans feel discriminated against at work – and found that nearly a third do. Later this year a tribunal is due to hear the case of an ethical vegan, Mr Casamitjiana, who is claiming he was dismissed by the League Against Cruel Sports for disclosing that it was investing pension funds into firms involved with animal testing.