Employment

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 on the grounds of religion and belief against his employer and four other individuals.

At a preliminary hearing, Mr Conisbee argued that vegetarianism satisfied the test for philosophical belief. To be protected a belief must satisfy the following criteria:

  • 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.

Mr Conisbee put forward the following arguments to support his position that vegetarianism is a protected philosophical belief:

  • 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 is clearly 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 was the outcome?

The Tribunal disagreed. It accepted that Mr Conisbee had a genuine belief in his vegetarianism but was not willing to bring this within the meaning of “philosophical belief” for the purpose of the Equality Act 2010.

Mr Conisbee fell at the first hurdle – in that his declaration that “the world would be a better place if animals were not killed for food”, was his opinion. Yes, it was based on some real or perceived logic but it was not sufficient to warrant protection. Secondly, the Tribunal found that vegetarianism was not a belief concerned with a weighty and substantial aspect of human life, as required by the test for philosophical belief, but with the lives of animals and fish.

Lastly, notwithstanding the growing popularity of vegetarianism in today’s society, the Tribunal reflected on why people are vegetarian. It considered that people become vegetarians for a number of different reasons – ranging from animal welfare, economic benefit or personal taste. Therefore, according to the Tribunal, vegetarianism did not attain the required level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance to be protected as a philosophical belief.

What about veganism?

Interestingly, in its reasoning, 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.  We are waiting a decision on this, a separate case on whether veganism could be classed as a philosophical belief having been heard in March 2019 (read more about this here).

Comment

While vegetarianism does not join strongly held beliefs in anti-fox-hunting, climate change and Scottish independence on the list of potential philosophical beliefs protected under the Equality Act 2010, the Tribunal was at pains to emphasise that the bar should not be set too high in this regard. It is also clear that any decision will depend on the particular facts of the case.

If your business is facing any issues discussed in this blog then please get in touch with your usual Brodies contact. Workbox users can also access more information at the pages on Religion or Belief Discrimination. Not a Workbox user? Get in touch to register for a free trial today.

You can also keep up-to-date on employment law matters by visiting Brodies’ Employment blog and by following us on LinkedIn or Twitter.

 

Sophie Airth

Trainee at Brodies LLP
Sophie Airth is a trainee solicitor based in our Glasgow office.
Sophie Airth