In a landmark judgement, the Norwich Employment Tribunal has ruled that vegetarianism is a “lifestyle choice” and not a philosophical belief capable of protection under the Equality Act 2010. The Tribunal dismissed a discrimination claim brought by a vegetarian employee with Judge Postle noting that whilst there were many reasons people might not eat meat, to constitute a “belief” for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010, vegetarianism must have a “similar status or cogency to religious beliefs”. The Judge added that holding a belief relating to an important aspect of human life of behaviour was “not enough in itself”.
The case in question was brought by George Conisbee, a former waiter at the Fritton Arms hotel who claimed he was ridiculed at work for not eating meat. The Claimant worked for the hotel for around four months after he resigned his role after claiming that he was “told off” for wearing an unironed shirt. Whilst the tribunal accepted that the Claimant probably was shouted at, it noted that it did not hear any instances of bullying related to his vegetarianism. Following his resignation, the Claimant brought claims for discrimination on the grounds of religion and belief and a claim for notice pay arguing that his “genuine belief” in his vegetarianism amounted to a protected characteristic.
In considering its claim, the Tribunal said that whilst the Claimant’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. It was considered that there were many reasons why people might not eat meat including personal taste, lifestyle, health or concerns about the way animals were reared and not necessarily because of a fundamental belief.
The Tribunal did however, distinguish between vegetarianism and veganism and suggested 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”.
Establishing whether a personal belief or lifestyle choice amount to a philosophical belief does cause some uncertainty for employers, but that this case has shown that there needs to be significant difference between an ethically held, deep belief in something and simply choosing a particular lifestyle. Nevertheless, it is highly likely that we will see further cases pass through the Tribunal system as to whether other dietary and lifestyle choices fall within protected characteristics.
Although the Judgment was clear on the point of vegetarianism, employers faced with claims from employees in relation to religion and belief should still exercise caution and take advice where appropriate. Employers should always be aware that (perhaps obviously) just because someone has or might have a protected characteristic, does not automatically give them a discrimination claim. If an employee alleges direct discrimination, they will need to show a causal link between their protected characteristic and the alleged act of discrimination. Employers should therefore ensure they have a good paper trail and strong written evidence to demonstrate why they acted the way they did, and to show that an employee’s protected characteristic was irrelevant in any of their decision making.
If you want to discuss this case in further detail, the impact of it upon your business or, how you can strengthen your practices when it comes to managing discrimination or equal opportunities issues within your workplace then please contact a member of the Employment Law team on 01274 864999.