Tribunal rejects vegetarianism as a philosophical belief; lettuce romaine positive

Tribunal rejects vegetarianism as a philosophical belief; lettuce romaine positive

While pluralism makes the world a more interesting place, it also presents challenges to institutions uncertain of the extent of their legal obligations to accommodate it.

The Equality Act 2010 renders unlawful discrimination based on a person’s religion or philosophical belief.  The courts are the ultimate arbiters of what in practice amounts to a philosophical belief.  Judgments over the last few years have admitted into the canon belief in the sanctity of life (extending to fervent beliefs in anti-fox hunting and anti-hare coursing), belief in the “higher purpose” of public service broadcasting and belief in climate change as “philosophical”, hence requiring protection under the legislation.

As a result of the Employment Tribunal’s (ET’S) decision in Conisbee v Crossly Farms Ltd ([2019] UKET 3335357/201 (6 Sept)), vegetarianism does not amount to a philosophical belief. Though the case was considered in the context of employment, it is nevertheless likely to apply to students and provides a useful reminder of what is required for a belief to be philosophical.

In order to be protected under the Equality Act 2010, a belief must fulfil all of the criteria outlined below.

It must:

1. Be genuinely held

The ET did not doubt that Mr Conisbee was sincere in his views regarding vegetarianism, which included believing that the world would be a better place if animals were not killed for food.

2. Be a belief and not an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available

The ET concluded that Mr Conisbee’s position was merely an opinion, though based on some real or perceived logic.

3. Be a belief as to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour

Vegetarianism, the ET concluded, is not about human life and behaviour.  It is a lifestyle choice.  Though it is an admirable sentiment, the ET did not accept that it related to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour.

4. Attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance

The belief must have a similar status or cogency to religious beliefs. The ET placed particular weight on the fact that the reason for being vegetarian differs greatly amongst vegetarians across the world.  Those reasons are as diverse as health, diet, concern for animals, lifestyle and personal choice.  That diversity militated against construing vegetarianism as cohesive or cogent.  .

5. Worthy of respect in a democratic society, not incompatible with human dignity and not in conflict with the fundamental rights of others

The ET had no difficulty in accepting that vegetarianism complied with this criterion.

The ET contrasted the diversity of reasons why individuals embrace vegetarianism with veganism, which appears to have a uniformity of purpose. Vegans, it stated, do not accept under any circumstances the practice of eating meat, fish or dairy products.  They also have distinct concerns about the way animals are reared and a clear belief that it is contrary to a civilised society and to climate control.   The implication is that if asked to consider the question, the ET would conclude that veganism possessed a coherence, cogency and weight sufficient to be construed as a philosophical belief capable of protection.

So what, you may ask.  ET decisions are not binding on the county court where claims of discrimination by students are commenced.  They do however provide an insight into how such matters are approached by the judiciary.

Students rarely claim direct discrimination because of their strongly-held views on vegetarianism, in our experience.  Policies however are fertile sources of challenge as being indirectly discriminatory.  The Public Sector Equality Duty also requires institutions’ decision making processes to take into account anti-discrimination objectives. Belief in vegetarianism is now one fewer consideration to which the institutional collective mind will have to be applied.

While all institutions clearly will want to take into account the reasonable preferences of their students when providing them with services, this case at least provides some solace that a discrimination challenge on the ground of vegetarianism is unlikely to succeed where those preferences are not met.  Veganism on the other hand? We will have to wait and see.