Is vegetarianism a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010?

An Employment Tribunal was recently asked in Conisbee v Crossley Farms Limited & Others to consider whether vegetarianism was a “philosophical belief” and so a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010.

Facts of the case

Mr Conisbee was a waiter who worked for Crossley Farms Limited. While at work, a colleague made a derogatory remark towards him for being vegetarian. Several weeks after the incident, Mr Conisbee resigned and raised a claim for discrimination against his employer and four individuals.

At a preliminary hearing, Mr Conisbee argued that vegetarianism satisfied the test for being a philosophical belief.

The Tribunal had to consider whether vegetarianism qualified. The test includes:

  • A belief must be genuinely held, although it doesn’t need to be shared by others;
  • It must be a belief, not just an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available;
  • It must relate 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, not be incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others;
  • It must have a similar status or cogency to a religious belief, but it doesn’t need to allude to a fully-fledged system of thought.

“The belief must have a similar status or cogency to religious beliefs. Clearly, having a belief relating to an important aspect of human life or behaviour is not enough in itself for it to have a similar status or cogency to a religious belief.”

Mr Conisbee argued that:

  • Vegetarianism is a belief system which is not made up or fanciful and many vegetarians, including himself, are genuine in their belief.
  • Many vegetarians base their belief on the premise that it is wrong and immoral to eat animals and subject them to cruelty and the perils of farming and slaughter. It is also damaging to the environment. Vegetarianism is therefore not merely an opinion or viewpoint but a serious belief.
  • Given the first two points, vegetarianism was a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour. This in turn shows that vegetarianism has a high level of cogency, seriousness and importance and is worthy of respect in a democratic society.
  • Finally, no one can sensibly argue that vegetarianism is incompatible with human dignity or that it conflicts with other fundamental rights.

What did the Tribunal decide?

The tribunal accepted that the Claimant was a vegetarian and had a genuine belief in vegetarianism and animal welfare. However, it held that vegetarianism is not capable of amounting to a philosophical belief under the Equality Act 2010. It is not enough merely to have an opinion based on logic.

The Tribunal decision will not carry weight in other Tribunals – it doesn’t set a precedent so it is quite possible another Tribunal could come to a completely different conclusion.

What about veganism?

The Tribunal distinguished between vegetarianism and veganism. The Tribunal suggested that veganism would be more likely to be protected as the belief held by each vegan is fundamentally the same i.e. their practice concerns animal welfare and environmental concerns.

Later this month a different tribunal will rule on whether ethical veganism is capable of being protected as a philosophical belief.

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