Veganism a protected characteristic?

Conisbee v Crossley Farms Limited and others (Employment Tribunal)

An Employment Tribunal has concluded that vegetarianism is not a "philosophical belief" for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010 ("EqA") and should therefore not qualify as a protected characteristic for the purposes of founding discrimination claims. The Tribunal did suggest, however, that its conclusion may be different in the case of veganism, which was in its view premised upon a clear "cogency and cohesion" in the vegan belief.

This judgment was handed down following a preliminary hearing which sought to address several points of fact and law in the context of a claim that an individual had been discriminated against on the basis of his vegetarianism, which contributed to his resignation as a waiter / barman. The Claimant alleged that his vegetarianism should constitute a "philosophical belief" and – accordingly – a "protected characteristic" for the purposes of the EqA.

The Judge concluded that vegetarianism did not meet the threshold for "philosophical belief" under the EqA because it is neither a weighty belief nor a substantial aspect of human life and behaviour; instead it is a "lifestyle" choice which: (i) relates more to preserving and protecting the lives of animals rather than humans; and (ii) is pursued for a variety of reasons such as lifestyle, health, diet or concern for animal welfare. This meant that vegetarianism was unable to attain the requisite level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance. As a comparison, the judge mentioned that veganism would have a much greater chance of qualifying for EqA protection as a "philosophical belief" due to its more unified rationale; namely that killing and eating animals is "contrary to a civilised society and … climate control".

This case provides a contemporary example of the limits of the EqA, which will continue to be tested where disgruntled individuals are dismissed without unfair dismissal protection and seek a cause of action. The Tribunal was clear that it did not want to "set the bar too high"; employers should therefore remain cognisant of the prospect of experimental claims in a corporate environment increasingly focussed on inclusion and diversity. Employers should also take note of the judge's reflections on veganism, which may open the door for further debate around what constitutes a "protected characteristic".