Coronavirus Guidance for Employers - Click Here

Vegetarianism Held Not to Be a Protected Characteristic

An employee who claimed he had been discriminated against on the grounds of his vegetarianism has had his complaint rejected by an employment tribunal. The judge found that vegetarianism was not capable of being a philosophical belief and therefore was not protected under the Equality Act. However, the judge indicated that the position regarding veganism may be different.

Whilst the decision in Conisbee v Crossley Farms Ltd isn’t binding on other tribunals it is interesting to see how tribunals approach the protected characteristic of  philosophical belief.  This is particularly so as we are awaiting a decision in a different case as to whether a belief in ethical veganism will be protected under the Equality Act.

The Facts of the Case

The employee was a waiter who had worked for his employer for less than six months. He felt he had been discriminated against because of his vegetarianism and ultimately resigned bringing a tribunal claim.

A preliminary hearing was ordered to determine whether vegetarianism was protected as a philosophical belief and his case should be allowed to proceed.

The tribunal accepted that the employee was a vegetarian and that he had a genuine belief in his vegetarianism, his view being that the world would be a better place if animals were not killed for food. However, the tribunal found on balance that it was not a belief capable of protection as it didn’t meet all the necessary requirements.

Whilst the employee’s belief was clearly an admirable sentiment, for it to be capable of being a philosophical belief it must have a  “similar status or cogency to religious beliefs” and this proved to be the main stumbling block.  Holding a belief relating to an important aspect of human life or behaviour was found to be “not enough in itself”.

The tribunal found that whilst there are many vegetarians across the world people adopted the practice for many different reasons; lifestyle, health, diet, concern about the way animals are reared for food and personal taste. As such vegetarianism lacked the cogency and cohesion of a belief. This was in contrast to vegans, where the judge considered the reasons for being a vegan appear to be largely the same.

Advice

It’s important for employers to be alert to discrimination and harassment related to philosophical beliefs as this can be an area that is overlooked. Whilst the employee was unsuccessful in convincing the tribunal in this case that vegetarianism was a philosophical belief for the purposes of the Equality Act, employees have succeeded in having some environmental and ethical beliefs protected previously. This includes a philosophical belief that “mankind is heading towards catastrophic climate change and therefore we were under a moral duty to lead our lives in a manner which mitigates or avoids this catastrophe for the benefit of future generations, and to persuade others to do the same”.

As there is an increasing awareness of, and interest in, environmental and ethical issues it is likely that we will see more cases involving employees asserting that certain philosophical beliefs are protected under the Equality Act.

As it can be difficult for employers to know whether some beliefs will be protected or not, it is important to ensure that all employees are made aware that they should treat each other with dignity and respect in the workplace at all times. This can help to reduce the likelihood of issues such as harassment arising.

If you have any employment law matters you would like assistance with, please do not hesitate to contact Kingfisher Professional Services Ltd as we are happy to help.