Legal lowdown: Vegetarianism not a protected characteristic

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An employment tribunal recently dismissed a claim by an employee that he was protected from discrimination or harassment because he was a vegetarian

With more people opting for a plant-based diet and avoiding meat there has been uncertainty about whether veganism and/or vegetarianism should be considered alongside religions and other beliefs with respect to discrimination law.

An employment tribunal recently dismissed a claim by an employee that he was protected from discrimination or harassment because he was a vegetarian. The tribunal ruled that vegetarianism did not fall in the same bracket as a religious or philosophical belief, contrasting it with veganism, which it said could be protected.

The claimant George Conisbee resigned after he was told off for wearing an unironed shirt at work. He had not been employed for two years and therefore could not claim unfair dismissal. However, he brought claims against the company and some of its employees for discrimination and harassment.

At a preliminary hearing a tribunal had to decide whether Conisbee was protected under the Equality Act 2010 before deciding on the veracity of his claims.

What beliefs are protected by discrimination law?

Having a religious belief, the absence of religious belief and certain philosophical beliefs are protected characteristics for the purposes of discrimination law. There are guidelines from previous case law that set out the points a tribunal should consider when deciding whether a philosophical belief qualifies for protection. These are:

  • The belief must be genuinely held.
  • It must be a belief, not an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available.
  • 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.
  • It must 'have a similar status or cogency to a religious belief'.
  • It need not be shared by others.

What was the claimant’s position?

Conisbee claimed that many vegetarians are genuine in their belief about vegetarianism, that this is more than a mere opinion, and that even in 2010 more than 20% of the world’s population were vegetarians so it follows that vegetarianism amounts to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life, which has a sufficient level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance.

He also argued that, given that some unusual beliefs are protected under the Equality Act and that vegetarianism is evidently compatible with human dignity and worthy of respect in a democratic society, he should be afforded protection from discrimination.

What did the tribunal say?

The tribunal took the view that Conisbee’s vegetarianism was no more than an opinion and a lifestyle choice, and therefore not eligible for protection.

While there was no disagreement that the claimant’s vegetarianism was genuine and that it was worthy of respect in a democratic society, the tribunal disagreed that it had a level of cogency similar to that of a religious belief. The tribunal’s position was that people choose to be vegetarians for all sorts of reasons related to health, cost, the environment and personal taste and some stop after a certain time. As such, it held that it was not on a level footing in terms of cogency with religious beliefs or veganism (which stands against use or consumption of any animal products).

What does this decision mean for employers?

Neither the judgment nor the tribunal’s distinction between veganism and vegetarianism are binding. But the case is a useful indicator as to how tribunals may approach future claims. Employers are advised to avoid any such claims by promoting an open and tolerant environment to dietary choices in a workplace.

It is worth noting that some vegetarians may put more emphasis than the claimant did on the impact that the consumption of meat has on climate change, and care for the environment can be a protected belief.

Although this was not a claim put forward by the claimant, there may be circumstances where comments made regarding vegetarianism or veganism relate to an individual’s religious belief and could therefore amount to discrimination or harassment.

Jeremy Coy is an associate solicitor in the employment team at Russell-Cooke

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