Tribunal rules that vegetarianism is not a protected belief

An employment tribunal has ruled that vegetarianism does not qualify as a “religion or belief” as defined in the Equality Act. This means that, subject to any appeal, the worker involved cannot advance his claim that he was discriminated against by his employer because of his belief in vegetarianism.

The Equality Act makes it unlawful to discriminate against a worker because of a “protected characteristic”. There are nine categories of these, including “religion or belief”. Belief is defined as “any religious or philosophical belief”, but philosophical belief is not itself defined. However, there has been guidance in the case law about how this expression should be understood. Among other things, tribunals are expected to assess whether the belief is about a “weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour” and whether it attains a certain level of “cogency, seriousness and cohesion”.

Although it has been widely assumed in the past that vegetarianism would satisfy these criteria, this tribunal has decided that it did not. We don’t know the background facts, as the decision was reached at a preliminary hearing. But it seems that the tribunal was persuaded that vegetarianism did not attain the required level of cogency and cohesion. That was because there are many reasons why people are vegetarians (for example respect for sentient life, moral concerns about slaughtering animals, environment concerns, or belief in its health and dietary benefits).

As a first instance decision, this ruling is not binding on other employment tribunals, but it still provides (as it were) food for thought. One interesting feature of the decision is the contrast it draws between vegetarianism and veganism:

“The Tribunal do accept there are many vegetarians across the world, however, the reason for being a vegetarian differs greatly among themselves, unlike veganism where the reasons for being a vegan appear to be largely the same. Vegetarians adopt the practice for many different reasons; lifestyle, health, diet, concern about the way animals are reared for food and personal taste. 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. There you can see a clear cogency and cohesion in vegan belief, which appears contrary to vegetarianism, i.e. having numerous, differing and wide varying reasons for adopting vegetarianism.”

One common criticism of vegetarianism which this ruling echoes is that it is at best inconsistent in not excluding all animal products (especially diary). However the decision does appear harsh on the claimant, who appears to have been a conviction rather than life-style vegetarian. It is therefore unlikely to be the last word on the issue, particularly when one considers the kind of beliefs that have previously qualified for protection under the Act. These include environmentalism, belief in the sanctity of life extending to “fervent” anti-fox-hunting beliefs and even a belief in the “higher purpose” of public service broadcasting.

For further information on this and any other employment matter please contact Charles Pigott by Email: Charles.Pigott@Mills-Reeve.com

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