19 November 2019

Philosophical belief, discrimination and vegetarianism

The Equality Act

An Employment Tribunal has ruled that vegetarianism is not a protected characteristic under the Equality Act.

The decision in Conisbee v Crossley Farms Limited & Others is not binding on other Tribunals, but it is the first case of its kind specifically addressing the question of vegetarianism as a protected characteristic and provides significant food for thought (pun intended).

The Law

The Equality Act 2010 provides that “religion or belief” is a protected characteristic. Section 10 of the Act defines belief as follows:

“Belief means any religious or philosophical belief and a reference to belief includes a reference to a lack of belief.”

Under the Act, a philosophical belief must:

  • be genuinely held
  • be a belief and not an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available
  • be a belief as to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour
  • attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance
  • be worthy of respect in a democratic society, compatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others.

Facts

Mr Conisbee brought a claim against the Respondents for discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief, under the Equality Act. In doing so, he sought to rely on his practice of (and belief in) vegetarianism as a philosophical belief.

At a preliminary hearing in May 2019, an Employment Tribunal had to decide whether vegetarianism was capable of qualifying as a philosophical belief within the meaning of the Equality Act.

 

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The Decision

The Tribunal accepted that the Claimant had a genuine belief in his vegetarianism and that the practice of vegetarianism was worthy of respect in a democratic society, not incompatible with human dignity, presumably satisfying the first, second and fifth criteria.

However, it found that the third requirement that the belief must be as to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour was not satisfied. In so finding, the Tribunal endorsed the Respondent’s argument that vegetarianism was not about human life and behaviour, but about preserving the life of animals and fish; it was a lifestyle choice and (in the Claimant’s view) believing that the world would be a better place if animals were not killed for food. Whilst the Tribunal stated this was an admirable sentiment, it said that it could not altogether be described as relating to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour.

On the fourth requirement, that the belief must attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance, the Tribunal first reminded itself that it must guard against setting the bar too high. Whilst it accepted that there are many vegetarians across the world, it endorsed the Respondent’s submission that there are many different reasons why people practice vegetarianism, such as health, diet, moral concern about the raising and slaughter of animals for food, environmental concerns, economic benefit and/or personal taste.

A comparison was made with veganism, where it was said that the belief held by each vegan is fundamentally the same, namely that 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, with a clear belief that killing and eating animals is contrary to a civilised society and also against climate control.

Having found that vegetarianism failed to meet the third and fourth elements of the guidance, the Tribunal concluded, on balance, that vegetarianism is not a philosophical belief capable of protection under the Equality Act.

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Comment

Some may find this decision surprising, especially in relation to the Tribunal’s finding that vegetarianism is not a “belief as to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour” because it was “about preserving the life of animals and fish” rather than “about human behaviour”. It could easily be argued that how we feed ourselves is a pretty substantial element of all human life and behaviour.

The Claimant’s lawyer had also argued that the case of Regina v Secretary of State for Education and Employment & Others (Respondents) ex parte Williamson (Appellant) & Others provided jurisprudence to say that vegetarianism was an uncontroversial example of a protected philosophical belief. In particular, Lord Walker said,

“Pacifism and vegetarianism and total abstinence from alcohol are uncontroversial examples of beliefs which fall within article 9.”

The Tribunal’s conclusion here seemed to brush over this submission (though it was not bound to follow it).

Nevertheless, it is perhaps easier to understand the logic of the Tribunal’s finding that vegetarianism is not a belief which “attains a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance” because of the many different reasons why people choose to be vegetarian, some for cogent and serious reasons, others more for reasons of personal taste. The comparison with veganism is perhaps the most convincing, suggesting that reliance on veganism as a protected characteristic is more likely to succeed.

Indeed, in the next few weeks, another Tribunal will rule on whether veganism is a protected characteristic and we await that decision with great interest.

For advice or more information, please contact Peter Orton on 01242 266 907 or at porton@hcrlaw.com.

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About the Author
Peter Orton, Senior Associate

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