ET says no to vegetarianism being a protected philosophical belief
We all have beliefs. Perhaps you believe in gravity, or Santa Claus, or that Mondays are objectively the best days. Now I know I believe in at least one of those but despite how vehemently I love Mondays the reality is that my belief may not be considered fundamental or integral enough to my individuality to be protected under the law. Some beliefs, such as vegetarianism and pacifism, are far more complicated and it has been long debated as to whether these would qualify for such protection. However, following the decision of Conisbee v Crossley published in September 2019 it seems that employment tribunals may not have as much respect for vegetarians as I do for Mondays.
The Equality Act 2010 (EA) protects employees against discrimination, harassment and victimisation based on protected characteristics such as religious or philosophical beliefs. To qualify as a protected belief the employment tribunal must be satisfied of the following criteria:
- The belief must be genuinely held
- It must be a belief, not a more temporary opinion or viewpoint
- It must be a belief as 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
- If a philosophical belief, it must have a similar status or cogency to a religious belief.
In the matter of Conisbee v Crossley the Claimant’s belief that it is wrong and immoral to eat animals and allow them and the environment to suffer in the process was genuine and compatible with human dignity. However, the employment tribunal found that there are certain complications which prevent vegetarianism from being protected under the EA. Firstly, the tribunal considered that the Claimant’s vegetarianism merely amounted to an opinion that the world would be a better place if animals weren’t killed for food rather than a philosophical belief. Secondly, as a lifestyle choice about the life of animals, vegetarianism was not found to be a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour. The tribunal further concluded that because of the differing reasons behind vegetarianism, and the varying degrees to which it is adopted, it does not have a sufficient level of cogency or cohesion to achieve the remaining criteria.
Perhaps the central defeating factor vegetarianism faced in Conisbee v Crossley is that all forms, reasons and levels of devotion were considered under the one umbrella term. This meant that, whilst the tribunal recognised a stronger case for veganism, certain more flexible subcategories of vegetarianism adopted for reasons such as dietary preference and fitness should not qualify for the purposes of EA protection. This is the controversial crux of the issue as enforcing such obligations on employers here is a slippery slope, vulnerable to abuse, however, it means that some vegetarians lose out despite the support of certain case law. For example, the moral duty to protect the environment and the sanctity of animal life have both already been found as philosophical beliefs. Is it fair then that individuals who change their dietary behaviours in line with these beliefs are refused statutory protection from discrimination, harassment and victimisation?
It is worth remembering that this decision may not be followed by other tribunal cases, however, it will certainly have a persuasive effect on future ‘lifestyle’ belief cases. So, if you are concerned about discrimination in the workplace, whether it relates to vegetarianism, an affection for Mondays, or any belief system, make sure you seek professional advice. For more information, please contact Claire Knowles in the employment team.