A recent employment tribunal ruled that vegetarianism is not a protected characteristic for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010 (EQA 2010), i.e. you cannot unlawfully discriminate against someone for being vegetarian. The picture may be different for vegans though, with the ET describing vegan belief as having a “clear cogency and cohesion” that vegetarianism does not.
The claim was brought in the Norwich ET by Mr Conisbee against Crossely Farms, who from April 2018 had been a waiter and barman at the Fritton Arms Hotel on the Somerleyton Estate, Suffolk. He resigned in August 2018 after being told off for wearing an un-ironed shirt at work and previously having been shouted and possibly sworn at in front of customers. His claim for discrimination was on the grounds of religion and belief - that his genuine belief in vegetarianism amounted to a protected characteristic.
To be deemed to be a religion or belief for the purposes of the EQA 2010 a belief must fulfil various requirements, which Judge Robin Postle considered in his conclusion:
- (The belief) must be genuinely held and not a mere opinion or viewpoint on the present state of information available:
Mr Conisbee’s belief was that the world would be a better place if animals were not killed for food. It was not disputed that his belief was genuine, but the tribunal held that it was merely an opinion.
- It must be a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour:
The tribunal described Mr Conisbee’s opinion above as an admirable sentiment, but that vegetarianism is a lifestyle choice and not related to a weighty aspect of human life and behaviour.
- It must attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance and be worthy of respect in a democratic society:
There was no argument as to vegetarianism’s respectability, but it fell notably at the cogency and cohesion hurdle. It was pointed out that people adopt the practice for numerous, differing and wide-varying reasons including lifestyle, health, diet, concern about animal breeding methods and personal taste.
- It must be compatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others:
There was no dispute as to vegetarianism’s fulfilment of this requirement.
- It must have a similar status or cogency to a religious belief:
The tribunal stated that having a belief merely relating to an important aspect of human life or behaviour was not enough to fulfil this requirement.
What about veganism?
In contrast to the different reasons for being vegetarian, the tribunal pointed out a clear cogency and cohesion amongst vegans, i.e. that unlike vegetarians, they all believe the same thing: “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”.
The above case is of interest but it does not mean that veganism will now be treated as a protected characteristic. It may well however be an indicator of how cases will be judged in future - for example the case of Casamitjana v League Against Cruel Sports which is due to be heard later this year and which we touched upon in our previous article “Why is there so much beef with vegans?”.
According to the Vegan Society, 1 in 3 British people stopped or reduced their meat consumption in 2018 while the number of vegans has quadrupled to 600,000 between 2014 and 2018. It would be wise for your organisation to keep a weathered eye on the Casamitjana case as you may have either vegan employees or colleagues and soon have a stronger obligation to take their needs into consideration.
More generally, effective training on diversity and equality and processes to avoid discrimination would be beneficial to avoid allegations of discrimination in the first place. In the event that there is an allegation, having a robust and effective grievance procedure and policy will help you resolve the issue promptly.