Is it unlawful to discriminate against someone on the grounds of vegetarianism? After all, the protected characteristic of religion or belief does not just apply to organised religions, but also extends to genuinely held religious and philosophical beliefs. Moreover, the law does not accord special protection to one category of belief over another. All qualifying beliefs are equally protected.
So, beliefs in climate change, in the sanctity of life, that lying is always wrong, in Scottish independence, and that mediums can communicate with the dead, have all been found by the courts to amount to either a religious or philosophical belief. As such, in those cases, the holder of that belief was protected from discrimination by their employer.
But what about vegetarianism, is it similarly protected? The short answer (for the time being) is no. Let me explain.
In Conisbee v Crossley Farms, Mr Conisbee was a waiter who worked for Crossley Farms. While at work, he was reportedly ridiculed for his vegetarianism – which apparently included some fairly shocking behaviour, such as colleagues giving him snacks and later telling him it was meat, or dipping croissants in duck fat!
In response, Mr Conisbee resigned and claimed discrimination on the grounds of religion and belief against his employer and four other individuals. He argued that his vegetarianism, which was based on a belief that “the world would be a better place if animals were not killed for food”, should be protected as a philosophical belief under the Equality Act. Mr Conisbee had insufficient service to claim unfair dismissal.
The Respondents did not deny that Mr Conisbee’s vegetarianism was genuine but submitted that it was an opinion or viewpoint rather than a belief.
The Employment Tribunal dismissed Mr Conisbee’s claim that vegetarianism is a protected characteristic. Although his belief was genuinely held and was worthy of respect in a democratic society, the Tribunal found it failed to meet the other legal hurdles necessary for protection:
- Vegetarianism is a life-style choice, and is not about human life and behaviour.
- Vegetarians adopt the practice for many different reasons, including lifestyle, diet, concern about the way animals are reared, and personal taste. This does not reach the necessary level of cogency and cohesion.
- Having a belief relating to an important aspect of human life or behaviour is not, in itself, sufficient for the belief to have a similar status or cogency as a religious belief.
So, on these facts, vegetarianism was not found to amount to a protected belief. However, the reality is that all these cases are very fact specific, and turn on their individual circumstances. For example, if Mr Conisbee had been vegetarian for religious reasons, it is easy to see how this case could have played out quite differently. Since it is also a first instance tribunal decision, there is no requirement for other courts to follow it. It is therefore quite possible that a different tribunal could still find that vegetarianism should be protected.
It is therefore difficult to come up with any hard and fast rules from such cases. It is interesting, however, that the Judge hinted at the fact that veganism may be sufficient to warrant protection. It seems as though, gradually, more and more practices which we might term “lifestyle choices” (veganism, climate change, anti-fox hunting etc) are becoming increasingly entwined with political and philosophical thinking. In light of this, maybe we will start to see a shift in what is covered by the Equality Act?
I think the main lesson from this case though, is a practical one: to treat staff with respect and dignity regardless! There is no doubt Mr Conisbee was at the receiving end of some quite unpleasant treatment, so although the employer, Crossley Farm, succeeded in defending its claim, it did not come out of the case looking spotless by any means. Employers have a duty of care to try to protect their staff from bullying and harassment, regardless of whether they have a protected characteristic or not. It is clear that greater staff training and enforcement about what amounts to appropriate behaviour would not have gone amiss in this case.
This publication is a general summary of the law. It should not replace legal advice tailored to your specific circumstances.
© Farrer & Co LLP, October 2019