“Philosophical belief” for religious discrimination purposes has been found to include a number of not-remotely-religious views on matters as diverse as fox hunting, climate change and the higher purpose of public service broadcasting. You would have thought that adding vegetarianism to that list would be a walk-over. After all, it is commonly and genuinely practised, affects your daily life in material respects, and is in broad terms not in conflict with the fundamental rights of others. Even as a committed omnivore (not tofu – there are limits) I will happily accept vegetarianism as worthy of respect in a democratic society.
But in a shock report just in from Norwich’s Eastern Daily Press comes news that in Conisbee –v– Crossley Farms Limited, the Employment Tribunal there has rejected that conclusion. In the process, it has drawn a useful distinction between how people behave and why they do it. Bear in mind that the key to protection under the Equality Act is the philosophical belief, with the behaviours (often the part which sparks complaint) being only the physical manifestation of that belief. The Norwich Tribunal said that not eating meat is only the consequence of being a vegetarian, not the belief system behind it.
And what a wide range of reasons or beliefs might lead you to vegetarianism. The Tribunal mentioned moral concern about the slaughter of animals, health or diet benefits, environmental concerns, economic advantages and personal taste. To which I can add my son’s experience after many years as an ardent carnivore (this is a boy who once tried to give up vegetables for Lent), i.e. finding that your nice new girlfriend won’t touch animal products at all. This was starkly driven home to him by an early date at the London Hummus Festival. Hummus has a Festival? Who knew? [Actually hummus has its own day – International Hummus Day, 13 May. No-one leaves this blog empty-handed, dear me no. But I digress.]
The Judge in Conisbee said that to make vegetarianism into a philosophical belief protected by the Equality Act, there would need to be a coherent belief system behind it. Therefore, such a diversity of reasons as to why one might not eat meat was fatal to Mr Conisbee’s argument. It was, said the Tribunal, more a viewpoint or a lifestyle choice than something of the weight or cogency of a religious belief. However, at least some of the reasons above (especially the environmental and moral concerns) could be said to have the seriousness and importance referred to in the Equality and Human Rights Commission Code as necessary to gain statutory protection. In addition, if you are treated less favourably for vegetarianism which is a religious observance, that will bring it back under the Act. Overall, the point is probably not beyond re-arguing at some stage, especially if the vegetarianism were shown to be part of a package of other behaviours all driven by a central view governing a person’s daily existence, such as a firm commitment to animal welfare.
Weirdly, the Tribunal judgement is reported as suggesting by contrast that veganism might make the grade as a philosophical belief. I find the distinction a difficult one to make at law (perhaps it is the greater degree of suffering which it entails) but no doubt someone will give it a go shortly.
So for employers, a question to consider when your next employee makes miserable noises about your allegedly discriminatory treatment of a particular habit or practice on his part – focus not on the physical action but on what drives it. If there are numerous possible explanations for behaviour of that kind (even if he himself relies on only one), then it is unlikely that his habit or practice will amount to a philosophical belief qualifying for statutory protection.
P.S. Obviously nothing in this post is designed to encourage less favourable treatment of vegetarians on that basis alone, just because you can. As I have mentioned above, “pure” vegetarianism may not for the time being amount to a protected characteristic, but there is material scope for it to be argued to be part of something which is.