When you consider that a belief that mediums can communicate with the dead, a public belief a service is for the common good and an anti fox hunting belief all made the grade as philosophical beliefs worthy of protection under the Equality Act 2010, you might well have thought that vegetarianism might be in with a shout as well. Add to that the fact that the Equality and Human Rights Commission ("EHRC") have said in its guidance that "belief such as humanism, pacifism and vegetarianism and the belief in man-made climate change, are all protected" and it seemed to be a shoe in. However, the Employment Judge in Conisbee v Crossley Farms Limited and others was not persuaded.
The claimant had been employed as a waiter/barman for approximately four months (so did not have the necessary service to claim unfair or constructive dismissal). He felt he had been discriminated against because of his vegetarianism and resigned, bringing a tribunal claim. The employment judge and indeed the respondents to the claim accepted that the claimant was a vegetarian and that he had a genuine belief in his vegetarianism, his view being the world would be a better place if animals were not killed for food.
So why did the employment judge not accept that vegetarianism amounted to a philosophical belief? The UK Government's response to the EHRC guidance may have had some influence - they had very quickly responded to that by saying "the Government did not share the view that climate change or veganism were religious beliefs." The judge also applied the established tests set out in Grainger Plc v Nicholson and found that vegetarianism failed to get over a number of the legal hurdles for protection. The judge concluded that it did not concern a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour, vegetarianism being a lifestyle choice, nor did it attain the necessary level of cogence, seriousness, cohesion or importance given there are so many possible reasons for being vegetarian. Vegetarianism, in the view of the judge, did not have a similar status or cogency to religious beliefs.
It can be difficult for employers to know whether some beliefs are protected or not. In this case, while rejecting vegetarianism, the employment judge did give some indication that veganism may be treated differently. We are also in a time where environmental concerns are becoming more prominent. Grainger Plc v Nicholson concluded that a belief that "mankind was heading towards catastrophic climate change and therefore we were under a moral duty to lead our lives in a manner which mitigates or avoids this catastrophe for the benefit of future generations, and to persuade others to do the same" qualified for protection. Where this issue has been raised in the workplace employers will need to be particularly careful.
Employers should ensure that a clear paper trail is available setting out reasons why employees might have been disciplined or dismissed in order to rebut discrimination claims of this nature (or indeed any type of discrimination claim). It is also important that employees are made aware of the need to treat each other with dignity and respect in the workplace and to be tolerant of the beliefs of others.