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Vegetarianism – a protected characteristic under the Equalities Act 2010?

Following the unsuccessful challenge in 2018 to have veganism recognised as a protected characteristic and so capable of legal protection under the Equality Act 2010, an employment tribunal (sitting in Norwich) has now reached a similar conclusion as regards vegetarianism.

In the case of Grainger Plc v Nicholson UKEAT/0219/09, the tribunal had to decide whether vegetarianism can be considered a “philosophical belief”. To prove that they qualify for protection under the Act, a claimant relying upon a “philosophical belief” must show that:

  1. they have a genuine belief;
  2. the belief relates to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour;
  3. the belief attains a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance;
  4. it is worthy of respect in a democratic society;
  5. it is a belief that they hold and not merely an opinion or viewpoint.

The tribunal concluded that veganism is a “lifestyle choice” and not a philosophical belief. This is not the first time a tribunal has debated different philosophical beliefs. In 2009, a tribunal ruled that a belief in man-made climate change should be classed as a belief and protected under the Equality Act. While this suggests that the tribunal is not afraid to rule on such weighty and existential topics, the opposing conclusions in the two examples above reveals that in practice, deciding whether an ‘-ism’ counts as a philosophical belief will usually boil down to the individual reasoning of the tribunal members and dare we say, subjective bias. How else does one explain why a belief in man-made climate change counts whereas veganism, rooted as it is in a deeply held respect for nature, does not?

In Grainger Plc v Nicholson, it was argued that in order for vegetarianism to qualify for protection a single, unifying set of beliefs among all vegetarians, would be required without which, the necessary ‘cohesion’ would be lacking. In evidential terms this would impose an extremely high burden on the claimant since even established philosophical belief systems have many variants.

Clearly, this case will have wider implications not just to employers and employees but providers of goods and services. Although there is no a legal requirement to accommodate vegetarians or vegans, it is still important to make reasonable efforts to provide alternative provisions for employees and customers who wish to avoid consuming foods and products derived from animals.

This blog was written by:  Michael Dobson

DISCLAIMER: Please note that this post sets out the general position under the general law. It should not be acted upon in any specific circumstances without taking specific legal advice as to those circumstances. Also, it should not be relied upon, acted upon or treated as a substitute for specific advice relevant to particular circumstances. If you do require specific advice please contact us for assistance.