Case update (2): Discrimination – Are Vegetarians Protected? 


Summary:  Is vegetarianism a protected belief under discrimination law?

No, says the Tribunal in Conisbee v Crossley Farms Limited available  here.

Background:  The Equality Act 2010 provides protection against discrimination which relates to certain listed “protected characteristics” which people may possess. Religion or belief is one of the protected characteristics and is defined as:

  • any religious belief;
  • any philosophical belief; or
  • a lack of belief.

To be protected in this way, a philosophical belief must satisfy the following criteria:

  • it 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; and
  • 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.

Facts:   Mr Conisbee, the employee, was a vegetarian.  He was employed by Crossley Farms Ltd for approximately five months before he resigned. He claimed that his vegetarianism is a philosophical belief and that he had suffered discrimination because of this belief. At a preliminary hearing, a Tribunal considered whether vegetarianism is protected under the Equality Act 2010.

Mr Conisbee argued that vegetarianism is a protected philosophical belief on the basis 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;
  • vegetarianism is 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; and
  • finally, no one can sensibly argue that vegetarianism is incompatible with human dignity or that it conflicts with other fundamental rights.

The Tribunal accepted that Mr Conisbee had a genuine belief in his vegetarianism and that the practice of vegetarianism is worthy of respect in a democratic society and does not conflict with other fundamental rights.

However, the Tribunal found that vegetarianism was not a philosophical belief because:

  • vegetarianism is a life-style choice, and it concerns animals rather than a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour;
  • there is a wide variety of different reasons for people to be vegetarian (such as health, animal welfare concerns and dietary preference). This does not reach the necessary level of cogency and cohesion to amount to a philosophical belief; and
  • vegetarianism does not have the same status or cogency as a religious belief (this notwithstanding that vegetarianism is an ideology of some religions)

Interestingly, the Tribunal distinguished between vegetarianism and veganism. The Tribunal suggested that veganism would be more likely to be protected, because:

“Vegans simply do not accept the practice under any circumstances of eating meat, fish or dairy products, and have distinct concerns about the way animals are reared, the clear belief that killing and eating animals is contrary to a civilised society and also against climate control. There you can see a clear cogency and cohesion in vegan belief, which appears contrary to vegetarianism, i.e. having numerous, differing and wide varying reasons for adopting vegetarianism.”

Implications: This case is interesting as it is the first known judgment specifically on whether vegetarianism can amount to a philosophical belief so as to be a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010. It is also helpful for employers as it demonstrates the high threshold required for a belief to get discrimination protection under UK law.

However, as this is a Tribunal (first level) decision, it is not binding on other Tribunals.  A different Tribunal could find that vegetarianism is a protected “belief” and the point may well be revisited in future cases.  The argument for protecting vegetarianism as a protected belief may yet be successful, for example by showing that it is part of a package of other behaviours driven by a central view, such as a firm commitment to animal welfare.

It will be interesting to see if this decision is appealed to the Employment Appeal Tribunal and also whether the comments made in this case on veganism will be endorsed in a separate case that the EAT is due to hear in the near future.  We’ll be sure to let you know, so watch this space…