Is vegetarianism a “protected characteristic”? Conisbee

Mr G Conisbee v Crossley Farms Ltd & Ors [2019] ET 3335357/2018 was a preliminary hearing to determine whether or not vegetarianism was “capable of satisfying the requirement and definition of being a philosophical belief (protected characteristic) under the Equality Act 2010” [1]. The Respondents did not dispute that Mr Conisbee was a vegetarian, nor that he had a genuine belief in his vegetarianism: however, they argued that simply being a vegetarian could not in itself constitute a protected characteristic [2].

Mr Conisbee had been employed by Crossley Farms as a Waiter/Barman from April 2018 until he resigned on 30 August 2018 [7]. He alleged that in June or July 2018 the third Respondent had called him “gay” because he was a vegetarian [56]. The basis of his complaint was discrimination on the grounds of religion and belief, together with a claim for notice pay [7]. There were also contested procedural points: what follows, however, is concerned solely with the issue of vegetarianism as a protected characteristic.

The arguments 

On the vegetarianism point, it was submitted on behalf of Mr Conisbee that:

  • A finding that his vegetarianism was not a protected characteristic would not defeat his claim because, harassment merely needs to “relate” to a protected characteristic (together with the other components of s.26) and, as such, the victim did not have to possess the protected characteristic in order to succeed [14].
  • The Explanatory Notes to the Equality Act 2010 made it clear that a definition of philosophical belief within s.4 of the Act was a broad definition in line with the rights granted under the ECHR, and paragraph 52 clarified what amounts to a protected characteristic under the category of philosophical beliefs as having the following criteria:
    • it must be genuinely held and not a mere opinion or viewpoint on the present state of information available;
    • it must be a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour;
    • it must attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance and be worthy of respect in a democratic society; and
    • it must be compatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others [15].
  • Vegetarianism was clearly a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour.

In particular, counsel cited in support of his claim Lord Walker of Gestingthorpe’s statement in R (Williamson) v Secretary of State for Education and Employment [2005] UKHL 15 at [55] that “Pacifism and vegetarianism and total abstinence from alcohol are uncontroversial examples of beliefs which fall within Article 9”.

The Respondents argued that Mr Conisbee’s assertions that he believed that “animals should not be bred, caged or killed for the purposes of food” and that “I happen to believe that the environment would be a better place without slaughtering animals for food” were merely an opinion or viewpoint [28]. Vegetarianism failed the “weighty and substantial aspect of human life” test because it was not about human life and behaviour but about preserving the life of animals and fish [29]. It also failed the test of cogency, seriousness and importance because, while such arguments might be advanced for veganism (because each vegan believes fundamentally the same things), there was no single, overarching reason for being a vegetarian [30]. Vegetarianism was “some way removed from veganism” and was a far less serious belief that fell short of attaining the level of cogency or seriousness similar to a religious belief [31].

Finally, it was argued that Parliament had not intended to make vegetarianism a protected characteristic: the Government Equality Office had issued a statement to the effect that the Government did not share the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s view that climate change or veganism were religious beliefs, while conceding that interpretation was a matter for the Courts [33].

The Tribunal’s conclusions

The Tribunal’s conclusions on the wider procedural issues need not concern us here; however, it decided that vegetarianism was not “capable of satisfying the requirement and definition of being a philosophical belief under the Equality Act 2010”. While accepting that Mr Conisbee’s belief in vegetarianism was genuine, “it is simply not enough to have an opinion based on some real, or perceived, logic” [39]. Vegetarianism did not attain the necessary level of “cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance” because – unlike veganism – the reasons for being vegetarian differed greatly among vegetarians themselves [41]. Though vegetarianism was worthy of respect in a democratic society [42], having a belief relating to an important aspect of human life or behaviour did not of itself enough give it a similar status or cogency to a religious belief {43]. Claim dismissed [44].

Comment

According to the Vegetarian Society, vegetarians do not eat meat, poultry, game, fish, shellfish or by-products of animal slaughter: however, some vegetarians do consume dairy products and/or eggs. It is difficult, though not impossible, to see why it might be thought intellectually inconsistent to be against the slaughter of animals for food but to drink milk and eat butter. However, the objection of vegetarians is, surely, to raising animals specifically for slaughter, and dairy cattle are raised for milk, not for meat – though that ignores the fact that most of the bull calves from a dairy herd go to the abattoir.

Nevertheless, I would argue that Employment Judge Postle’s contrast between the “clear cogency and cohesion in vegan belief” and the “numerous, differing and wide varying reasons for adopting vegetarianism” is far from conclusive. It is perfectly possible for the followers of a philosophical or religious belief that does pass the test of “cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance” to disagree among themselves as to how to practise it: Marxism? Christianity?

Furthermore, “seriousness” is to at least some extent in the eye of the beholder. The Supreme Court was surely right to hold in R (Hodkin & Anor) v Registrar-General of Births, Deaths and Marriages [2013] UKSC 77 that Scientology was a religion for the purposes of registering its chapels under the Places of Worship Registration Act 1855; to most non-Scientologists, however, the core doctrines of Scientology do not appear to be “serious” at all.

Nor does the judgment take account of the recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which highlighted the part that livestock plays in N2O emissions from agriculture and suggested a move to diets based more on “plant-based foods … and animal-sourced food produced in resilient, sustainable and low-greenhouse-gas emission systems” as a mitigation of global warming.

In short, I suspect that a significant proportion of the general public would agree with Lord Walker.

Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer, "Is vegetarianism a “protected characteristic”? Conisbee" in Law & Religion UK, 21 September 2019, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2019/09/21/is-vegetarianism-a-protected-characteristic-conisbee/

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