Vegetarianism a lifestyle choice not a protected characteristic, tribunal rules

Landmark judgment finds ‘genuine belief’ in cutting out meat is not enough, but hints veganism could be considered differently in future 

Vegetarianism is a “lifestyle choice” and not a philosophical belief capable of protection under equality legislation, an employment tribunal (ET) has ruled. 

The Norwich ET has dismissed a discrimination claim brought by a vegetarian employee, ruling that vegetarianism was not protected by equality law like sexuality or gender as it did not meet the criteria for being a philosophical belief.

Judge Robin Postle said there were many reasons people might not eat meat, but that vegetarianism as a belief must have a “similar status or cogency to religious beliefs”. He added that holding a belief relating to an important aspect of human life of behaviour was “not enough in itself”. 

The ruling, however, held out hope for vegans who are campaigning to have veganism viewed as a protected characteristic in employment law. Postle said there was a “clear cogency and cohesion in vegan belief” that vegetarianism lacked. 

The case was brought by George Conisbee, a former waiter at the Fritton Arms hotel on Lord Somerleyton’s estate near Lowestoft, Suffolk, who claimed he was ridiculed at work for not eating meat.

Conisbee, who worked for the historic hotel from April 2018 until he resigned on 30 August 2018, left his role after claiming he was “told off” for wearing an unironed shirt at work. The tribunal also accepted that he was shouted at and “may have been sworn at” in front of customers, but it did not hear any instances of bullying related to his vegetarianism.

After leaving his role, Conisbee brought claims of discrimination on the grounds of religion and belief and a claim for notice pay to the Norwich ET in December 2018, arguing that his “genuine belief” in his vegetarianism amounted to a protected characteristic. 

However, Postle dismissed this argument, and said while Conisbee’s vegetarianism amounted to an “opinion and viewpoint… that the world would be a better place if animals were not killed for food” it did not seem to be a belief capable of protection. 

He said one of the many reasons that vegetarianism did not qualify under the Equality Act was that there were many reasons why people might not eat meat including personal taste, lifestyle, health or concerns about the way animals were reared. 

However, Postle hinted that vegans could be considered differently as there was a “clear cogency and cohesion in vegan belief” as all vegans shunned meat, fish and dairy products because they believed it to be “contrary to a civilised society and against climate control”.

Paul Holcroft, associate director of operations at Croner, said that establishing whether a personal belief or lifestyle choice amounted to a philosophical belief continued to be a cause of uncertainty for employers, but that this case reaffirmed the significant difference between an ethically held, deep belief in something and simply choosing a particular lifestyle.

However, he warned employers to still be cautious as the ruling, while confirming it is unlikely vegetarianism will be considered a philosophical belief under the law, had left the door open on cases of “ethical veganism”.

“Unlike vegetarianism, vegans maintain a clear belief that using any form of animal-based product is ‘contrary to a civilised society’,” Holcroft said. “How tribunals approach the issue of philosophical belief continues to vary depending on the facts, and we may yet see future rulings that find in favour of employees.”

And Sacha Sokhi, solicitor at Gunnercooke, hinted that it is likely we will see further tribunal cases test whether vegetarianism, as well as veganism, fall within protected characteristics. But Sokhi expressed concerns over possibly opening up the "floodgates" to future cases based on dietary and lifestyle choices. 

"The concern will be that if dietary choices are found to be protected characteristics, the floodgates will likely open on testing a range of other characteristics, many of which may have less merit than this debate," Sokhi said. "I think it’s likely that many of these cases will end up at the Employment Appeal Tribunal, if not further."

Whether ‘ethical’ veganism should be regarded as a philosophical belief and therefore receive the status of protected characteristic under the law is still being debated in tribunals

Jordi Casamitjana – who described himself as an ethical vegan because his veganism was based on beliefs rather than being simply a health or lifestyle choice – claimed he was fired from his role as head of policy and research at the League Against Cruel Sports after disclosing it was investing pension funds into firms involved in animal testing.

Casamitjana said he brought his discovery to the attention of his managers and claimed that when nothing happened, he informed other employees and was fired as a result. He argued that this amounted to discrimination because he was vegan.

This is not the first time a tribunal has debated the merits of different philosophical beliefs. In 2009, an ET ruled that a belief in man-made climate change should be classed as a belief and protected under the Equality Act. And in 2018, the preliminary findings of a Glasgow tribunal found a belief in Scottish independence could be a protected philosophical belief after Scottish National Party member Christopher McEleny claimed this was the reason he was dismissed by his former employer, the Ministry of Defence.