Is ‘No Beef’ a protected belief?

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In an age where people are increasingly chopping meat from their diets entirely, whether for welfare or environmental reasons, the question of whether vegetarianism is a protected philosophical belief for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010 has begun to filter into the employment tribunal.

Leading the charge for legal protection for veggies was Mr Conisbee, who alleged that he was discriminated against on the ground of his philosophical belief – that belief being vegetarianism.  Religion or philosophical belief is one of the nine ‘protected characteristics’ in the Equality Act, and tribunals have for many years grappled with whether certain beliefs and lifestyle choices can be elevated to the status of a philosophical belief and therefore protected under the law and rendering any discrimination for having such a belief unlawful.

According to the Employment Tribunal’s judgment this month, although Mr Conisbee’s vegetarianism was a genuinely held belief and was worthy of respect, it failed to meet the other legal hurdles required for protection under the Equality Act, namely:

  • Mr Conisbee’s practice in being a vegetarian was his opinion and viewpoint, and did not amount to a belief
  • It did not concern a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour, and concerned the welfare of animals.
  • It did not attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance.
  • It did not have a similar status or cogency to religious or philosophical beliefs.

Interestingly, the Tribunal contrasted vegetarianism with veganism, which it suggested was a coherent belief system dealing with all aspects of an individual behaviour for the same reasons, whereas an individual’s choice to be a vegetarian can be for several different reasons or none.

It is important to remember that this judgment will not bind other tribunal judges in the future, and it may be possible that if vegetarianism is an aspect of a wider philosophical or religious belief, then it could acquire protection.  However, the case is an indicator to the approach employment tribunals will adopt going forward and the relatively high hurdle that an opinion can become a protected belief.