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Philosophical belief discrimination: Is vegetarianism a protected characteristic?

17 October 2019
In the case of Conisbee v Crossley Farms Limited an employment tribunal has recently ruled on whether or not vegetarianism is a "philosophical belief" under the Equality Act 2010 ("the Act"). 

Background

Mr Conisbee was employed by Crossley Farms as a barman/waiter. He resigned after five months in the role, alleging that he suffered discriminatory treatment because he is vegetarian. 

For the claim to succeed, Mr Conisbee had to prove that vegetarianism was a protected characteristic.  Protected characteristics are set out at section 4 of the Act, and include, amongst others, "religion or belief".  Within the definition of "religion or belief", "belief" is defined to include any "religious or philosophical belief".  Mr Conisbee argued that vegetarianism meets the criteria of a philosophical belief. 

 

Arguments

For something to amount to a philosophical belief and therefore a protected characteristic, it must meet the following criteria: 

1. The belief must be genuinely held and not a mere opinion or viewpoint.
2. The belief must be a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour.
3. The belief must attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance and be worth respect in a democratic society.
4. The belief must be compatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others.

Mr Conisbee argued that vegetarianism satisfied all the above criteria, on the basis that many vegetarians (including him) hold a genuine belief that it is immoral to eat animals, and this is a "serious belief integral to their way of life".  He also argued that vegetarianism is evidently "a weighty and substantial aspect" of human life and behaviour that is clearly compatible with human dignity.  He also relied upon previous cases in which less conventional philosophical beliefs had been considered to meet the test, such as a belief in man-made climate change in Grainger plc v Nicholson.

Crossley Farms argued that whilst Mr Conisbee's belief in vegetarianism may be very strong, it is not considered to be a cogent belief system on the same level as religion. It also sought to distinguish between vegetarianism and veganism, by arguing that vegetarianism is some way removed from veganism. It was put to the tribunal that people choose to be vegetarians for many different reasons (such as personal taste or dietary benefits) and for many, the practice of vegetarianism is "neither serious nor important".  However, individuals are usually vegan for a shared fundamental reason.  It also contended that vegetarianism is an opinion, rather than a philosophical belief. 

 

Employment tribunal

The tribunal did not dispute that Mr Conisbee was a vegetarian with a genuine belief in vegetarianism. However, they concluded that this was not a belief capable of protection, noting that "it is simply not enough to have an opinion based on some real, or perceived, logic". The tribunal accepted Crossley Farm's argument on the distinction between vegetarianism and veganism, agreeing that a belief in veganism is far stronger and more cogent than vegetarianism. It was considered that vegetarianism is a lifestyle choice and pertains to Mr Conisbee's view that the world would be a better place if animals were not killed for food. Whilst it was accepted that this is an "admirable sentiment", this is not enough for vegetarianism to be considered a philosophical belief. The tribunal concluded that vegetarianism is, therefore, not protected. You can read the tribunal's judgment, here.

 

Comment

This case is a useful illustration of the boundaries of philosophical belief, particularly so with the growing popularity of both vegetarianism and veganism. The boundaries will be tested further by Mr Casamitjana who is currently claiming he was discriminated on the basis of his veganism by his former employer, the League Against Cruel Sports. The decision of the tribunal in Conisbee v Crossley Farms Limited suggests that had this tribunal instead been faced with a vegan claimant, they may have found in his or her favour. It will be interesting to see what approach is taken by the tribunal in Mr Casamitjana's case. We will keep you updated.  


Authored by Katie McKernan, Jonathan Barron  and Jennifer Wright.

 

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