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Legal Corner: Vegetarianism ‘not sufficiently cogent’ to amount to a philosophical belief

25th Oct 2019

The Equality Act 2010 protects individuals in a range of circumstances against discrimination and harassment as a result of several protected characteristics, such as race, sex and disability.

Individuals are also afforded protection from discrimination based upon their religion, but the specific wording of the Act encompasses both religious and philosophical beliefs.

However, the question of what amounts of a philosophical belief is one that arises in a variety of different situations.

Mr Conisbee was employed by Crossley Farms Ltd as a waiter/barman. As a result of an incident which occurred six months into his employment, Mr Conisbee resigned. He then brought a claim of discrimination based on religion and belief, asserting that he had been discriminated against because he was a Vegetarian and that Vegetarianism was capable of being a protected philosophical belief. The employment tribunal had to decide, as a preliminary issue, whether that was the case.

Previous cases have determined that when considered whether a belief is capable of protection, it must meet certain criteria: it must be genuinely held, it must not simply be an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available, it must concern 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 and must be not incompatible with human dignity or in conflict with the fundamental rights of others.

Mr Conisbee argued that his Vegetarianism met all of these criteria, in particular arguing that he and others were genuine in their belief in Vegetarianism and many vegetarians believed that it was wrong and immoral to subject animals to slaughter and then eat them. It was a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour and was therefore worthy of respect in a democratic society. However, Crossley Farms disagreed, and in particular argued that Mr Conisbee’s

Vegetarianism was an opinion or viewpoint, rather than a belief. It was a lifestyle choice that was not about human life and behaviour but the preservation of animals and fish. Moreover, it did not have a sufficient level of cogency because there were so many reasons why people chose to become vegetarian, ranging from animal welfare issue, health benefits, economic benefits and even personal taste.

The tribunal accepted the arguments made by Crossley Farms and concluded that whilst a belief in Vegetarianism was an admirable sentiment, it simply did not have the level of cogency required to be protected as a philosophical belief. The judge contrasted Vegetarianism with Veganism, which he considered had a higher level of cohesion. Mr Crossley’s claim of discrimination on grounds of religion and belief, therefore, failed at the first hurdle.

This case does, however, highlight the importance of ensuring respect for a variety of different beliefs in the workplace. Other beliefs which have satisfied the test set out above include spiritualism and the efficacy of mediums, anti-hunting, the higher purpose of public service broadcasting and a belief that lying is always wrong.

Later this month, an employment tribunal is due to determine whether ethical Veganism is capable of being protected as a philosophical belief. It will be interesting to see whether a different outcome is reached in that case, particular given the arguments which were made here.

Safia Tharoo
Barrister, 40 Bedford Row, London

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