Tribunal Rules Vegetarianism Not Covered by Equality Law, but Distinguishes Veganism
A UK employment tribunal has ruled that a Claimant’s belief in vegetarianism is not a protected characteristic in terms of UK anti-discrimination provisions, in a case called Conisbee v Crossley Farms Limited.*
In concluding that the Claimant’s beliefs did not satisfy the applicable test for protection, the Tribunal made a distinction between vegetarianism and veganism, suggesting that veganism would be considered a protected characteristic, as it concerns a coherent, logical philosophical conviction, in contrast to vegetarianism.
As others have noted long before me, the “ethical vegetarian” position is inconsistent and lacks cogency. It is illogical to avoid the consumption of animal and fish flesh on the basis that it is wrong to kill animals for food, and yet continue to consume dairy and/or eggs, for which animals are also killed. Indeed, it does not make sense to be opposed to the killing of animals for food while participating in the commodification of animals for other purposes, whether clothing, cosmetics, “entertainment” or any other purpose. Once we acknowledge that animals are alive in the same way we are, thinking, feeling beings who experience, form relationships and have the desire to live, the only logical moral position is to avoid participating in their exploitation in any way, in so far as we possibly and practicably can. The only cogent moral position is to be vegan.
While the reasoning of the Tribunal Judge is not as explicit as this, it does at least allude to it. In considering the requirement that a belief or conviction must “attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance” in order to be protected, the employment judge noted that:
“the reason for being a vegetarian differs greatly among themselves, unlike veganism where the reasons for being a vegan appear to be largely the same. Vegetarians adopt the practice for many different reasons; lifestyle, health, diet, concern about the way animals are reared for food and personal taste. Vegans simply do not accept the practice under any circumstances of eating meat, fish or dairy products, and have distinct concerns about the way animals are reared, the clear belief that killing and eating animals is contrary to a civilised society and also against climate control. There you can see a clear cogency and cohesion in vegan belief, which appears contrary to vegetarianism, i.e. having numerous, differing and wide varying reasons for adopting vegetarianism.” 
While this is not the description of veganism I would use, it nevertheless recognises the coherency in the vegan moral conviction that it is wrong to use, harm or kill animals for any purpose.
In addition to making a distinction between vegetarianism and veganism in terms of cogency and coherence, the above passage also speaks to the fact that the protections do not arise by virtue of the person identifying as a follower of a particular way of life; instead the protections arise if a person’s beliefs or convictions meet the test for protection. If they do meet the test that gives rise to the right to live according to the conviction and the right not to be discriminated against on account of it.
It is sufficiently clear from the legal provisions, guidance and prior caselaw, that the belief or conviction at the heart of “ethical veganism” (or veganism, properly understood) will be considered protected, but that does not mean that anyone who self-identifies as “vegan” has these protections. While the Tribunal has said there is only one reason people are vegan, and I agree with that, there are many who refer to themselves as vegan because they follow a plant-based diet, whether for health, because it is better for the environment or simply because they prefer it. Whether or not the protections would apply to them will depend if they are able to persuade a court or tribunal that their beliefs meet the applicable test.
This note sets out the protections applicable to veganism under human rights and equality law, and compares that to the position for vegetarianism.
Veganism as a Protected Belief or Conviction
There are two rights at play here. The first is the human right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; the second is the right to equality or freedom from discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief. They are separate, but related, rights.
It has long been confirmed that the human right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion applies equally to non-religious fundamental beliefs as to religious beliefs. In order to qualify for protection a belief must meet a threshold test, that it “denotes a view that attains a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance” is “worthy of respect in a democratic society” and “not incompatible with human dignity”. Applying that test, veganism has been found to be protected.
In the case of W v UK 18187/91 the European Commission of Human Rights was presented with a claim by a prisoner who asserted that his “vegan beliefs prevented him from working with animal tested products (i.e. dyes).” He had sought to be exempted from working in the prison print room, and was challenging the prison’s refusal of his request. In summarising the nature of the claim the Commission noted: “The Commission recalls that the applicant refused to work in the print shop because as a Vegan he wished to avoid contact with animal products or products that had been tested on animals.” The Commission noted that “the UK government [did] not contest that Veganism is capable of concerning “conscience” or “belief” within the meaning of Article 9 of the Convention”, and found that:
“The Commission’s case-law establishes that this provision protects the sphere of private, personal beliefs and the acts which are intimately linked to these attitudes….The Commission finds that the Vegan convictions with regard to animal products fall within the scope of Article 9 para 1 of the Convention.”**
Protection for non-religious beliefs arise from our recognition, as a society, that moral convictions are of fundamental importance to human beings and humans ought to be free to live according to those convictions, so long as they are not causing harm to others in doing so. Other non-religious fundamental beliefs or convictions which have been found to be protected include pacifism and the conviction that it is wrong to inflict physical violence against children.
There do not appear to be any decisions finding that non-religious vegetarian beliefs meet the test for protection. Although vegetarianism has featured in freedom of thought, conscience and religion cases, it appears only to have done so where a vegetarian diet was an aspect of a religious belief. (For example, Vartic v Romania and Jakobski v Poland, where the claimants followed a vegetarian diet in accordance with their Buddhist beliefs.)***
Discrimination on Account of Veganism
Discrimination on the basis of a number of characteristics is prohibited; one of those characteristics is “religion or belief”, where belief is a “philosophical belief”. The scope of “religion and belief” is interpreted in line with the human right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and so a very similar test is applied to the one described above.**** Therefore, although we have not yet had a UK employment tribunal decision directly on the question whether the vegan conviction that it’s wrong to exploit, harm or kill animals is a protected philosophical belief, it is reasonably clear that our employment tribunals should find that it is when they apply the relevant test taking into account prior decisions, including the decision in W v UK in which veganism was held to be a protected belief.
While we have not had an employment case in which veganism was directly in issue, we have had two cases which demonstrate the approach our employment tribunals take in “protected belief” claims. In the case of Grainger v Nicholson the Employment Appeals Tribunal (“EAT”) found that “a strongly held philosophical belief about climate change and the environment” was capable of being a “philosophical belief” in terms of the anti-discrimination provisions. In its reasoning the EAT referenced the decision in W v UK on veganism. In another case, Hashman v Milton Park Limited, a tribunal found that a belief in the sanctity of life and that hunting foxes was morally wrong was a protected philosophical belief. Mr Hashman was vegan, but it was not the vegan philosophy or conviction that was the relevant “belief” in that case, but rather his specific belief that it is wrong to hunt animals for “sport” or pleasure.
It is reasonably clear that if our tribunals follow the EAT’s approach in Grainger, as they should, taking note of previous human rights decisions as well as equality decisions, they ought to conclude that the vegan conviction is protected as a philosophical belief. If they did not follow previous decisions, and found that the vegan conviction was not protected, they could be appealed to the Court of Appeal or the Court of Session, from there to The Supreme Court, and potentially on to Europe (depending on the outcome of Brexit).
It should be noted that the Tribunal decision in Conisbee was one of first instance and so is open to appeal. The decision was just issued, on 6th September, so it remains to be seen if it will be appealed.
If the decision is appealed the EAT may find that the Tribunal erred by applying the test to “vegetarianism” as an objectively defined philosophy, as opposed to the subjective beliefs espoused by the Claimant. Prior decisions applying the philosophical belief test have looked closely at the precise beliefs set out by the claimant and applied the test to those stated beliefs, rather than attempting to define the “ism” in question and decide if it could ever qualify as a protected belief. Indeed, previous decisions have confirmed that the belief need not amount to an “ism” at all.
In the Conisbee case it was not clear that the Claimant avoided consuming animal and fish flesh because of concern for animals, or due to an opposition to killing animals per se. In giving evidence regarding their beliefs, in a written statement, the Claimant stated that “…animals should not be bred, caged or killed for the purpose of food”, and “I happen to believe that the environment would be a better place without slaughtering animals for food.” There is a real lack of clarity there in terms of what the Claimant’s beliefs are.
It is perhaps not surprising therefore, that while the Tribunal accepted that the Claimant was vegetarian and that he genuinely believed in vegetarianism, it found that this was an opinion or point of view, rather than a belief or conviction that attracts protection. In considering the requirement that a belief or conviction be about a weighty and substantial aspect of human behaviour, they decided that that “vegetarianism is not about human life and behaviour, it is a life style choice.” 
The decision has raised the important distinction between the vegan moral conviction or philosophy and vegetarianism, in terms of whether or not they quality for protection. It is sufficiently clear that veganism is a fundamental belief or conviction that is protected under human rights law, will people holding this belief entitled to live according to it, and that it is a philosophical belief protected in equality law in terms of anti-discrimination provisions. Vegetarianism, on the other hand, does not necessarily meet the test for protection under either human rights or equality law.
This is a brief overview of the law for the purpose of assessing the impact, or otherwise, of the tribunal decision. We have set out the relevant law applicable to veganism in much more detail on our website pages on Vegan Rights.
** W v UK, also referred to as H v UK: H. v United Kingdom, App. No. 18187/91, European Commission of Human Rights, (1993) 16 E.H.R.R. CD44)
*** In the House of Lords decision in R v Secretary of State for Education and Employment and others ex parte Williamson 2005 UKHL 15, Lord Walker did refer to vegetarianism as an “uncontroversial example” of a non-religious belief falling with the protection [Walker at 55] but vegetarianism was not at issue in that case and the remarks were not relevant to the decision reached.
**** To qualify the belief must be: genuinely held; a belief and not an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available; as to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour; attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance, and be worthy of respect in a democratic society, not incompatible with human dignity and not in conflict with the fundamental rights of others. Grainger v Nicholson, 2009 UKEAT