This judgment is just one of a spate of recent cases in which the protection of a non-religious belief has been tested. Claimants have argued that beliefs in owning copyright in their own works, that public money ought not to be wasted, and in relation to climate change and the environment, should be protected. Some have done so more successfully than others.
Facts and decision
In this case, Mr Conisbee, who was a vegetarian, had been working as a waiter/barman for Crossley Farms for around 5 months, and following a telling off for attending work in an un-ironed shirt, handed in his resignation.
Mr Conisbee later issued proceedings in the Employment Tribunal claiming discrimination on the grounds of religion and belief, namely his vegetarianism. He asserted that his colleagues had given him snacks that he later found out contained meat. Crossley Farms did not dispute Mr Conisbee’s vegetarianism, or that his belief in that was genuinely held, but argued that “simply being a vegetarian itself cannot amount to being a protected characteristic”. This issue fell for consideration at a Preliminary Hearing.
To be capable of protection under the Equality Act, a belief must:
- be genuinely held and not a mere opinion or viewpoint on the present state of information available;
- be a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour;
- attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance and be worthy of respect in a democratic society; and
- be compatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others
A person’s belief need not be shared by others for it to be a protected characteristic.
The Tribunal found that although Mr Conisbee’s belief was worthy of respect, it did not meet the required legal hurdles for protection.
It was Mr Conisbee’s view that the world would be a better place if animals were not killed for food, which the Tribunal concluded did not seem to be a protected belief for the purposes of the Equality Act. It was “simply not enough to have an opinion based on some real, or perceived, logic”.
His belief did not concern a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour. The Tribunal held that vegetarianism is a life style choice. Whilst, the view that the world would be a better place if animals were not killed, was admirable in its sentiment, it could not altogether be described as relating to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour.
The Tribunal reminded itself that when considering if the belief in question attains a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance, it must guard against setting the bar too high. The Tribunal went on to consider that the reasons for being a vegetarian differ greatly, and can relate to lifestyle, diet and concern about the way animals are reared for food and personal taste. In this regard, the Tribunal compared the broad reasons for vegetarianism as against the more cogent and cohesive rationale for those practicing veganism. Mr Conisbee’s belief did not attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance.
Finally, the Tribunal held that his belief in vegetarianism did not have a similar status or cogency to religious beliefs.
On balance therefore the Tribunal found that Mr Conisbee’s vegetarianism did not amount to a philosophical belief capable of protection under the Equality Act.
Whilst this judgment went against the Claimant, employers should be mindful of the developing scope of non-religious beliefs protected by the Equality Act. This issue is being regularly contested before the Tribunal. The definition of philosophical belief is wide, and the Tribunal was clear to explain that it must guard against “applying too stringent standards”. Although a particular viewpoint may not obviously qualify for protection as a belief, employers should keep in mind whether the legal test may be met and act accordingly. This area is not straightforward and therefore advice should be sought if employers are at all uncertain or concerned.
This information is necessarily of a general nature and doesn’t constitute legal advice. This is not a substitute for formal legal advice, given in the context of full information under an engagement with Bates Wells.
All content on this page is correct as of November 4, 2019.