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More “isms” to digest: When is a belief a ‘philosophical belief’ and thereby protected in law?

Employers face a tricky time when it comes to knowing whether a member of staff’s personal beliefs qualify for protection from discrimination at work. Tribunals have ruled in favour of all sorts of philosophical beliefs in the past and a couple of recent cases will give boardrooms further food for thought.

Firstly, let’s consider a recent Court of Appeal decision which held that an employee was not discriminated against when she was dismissed for refusing to sign a copyright agreement.

In the case of Gray v Mulberry Company (Design) Ltd, Ms Gray did not sign a contract clause which specified that her company would own the right to any design work she completed during her employment. She insisted that to do so would impact on her own work as a writer and filmmaker.  When Ms Gray first refused to sign the clause, Mulberry amended it to clarify that it only covered work carried out in relation to its business. However, she still refused to sign it and was dismissed 8 months later, prompting her to submit a tribunal claim  for discrimination on the grounds of philosophical belief. Ms Gray stated that she believed creative people should own and profit from their own work.

Her claim was dismissed by a tribunal, which held that Mulberry was merely safeguarding its IP. At appeal, the EAT ruled that her belief could not be considered a protected belief under the Equality Act.

The case was further considered by the Court of Appeal on 8th and 9th October and was dismissed.

The judgement stated that the Claimant’s refusal to sign the contract was not due to some philosophical belief but rather to her “wish to achieve greater protection for her own creative works”.

This judgement makes it clear that disagreements about the wording or interpretation of an agreement between employer and employee do not qualify as a philosophical belief. To be considered under the Equality Act, such a belief must be ‘worthy of respect in a democratic society, compatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others’.

Under Equality Act 2010 (EqA) there are nine different characteristics that can be considered protected.

These include religion/belief. According to the EqA, to be considered as a belief, it must be the following:

  • Something genuinely held;
  • A belief and not an opinion or viewpoint;
  • A weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour;
  • Have a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance;
  • Worthy of respect in a democratic society, not be incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others; and
  • Have a similar status or cogency to a religious belief.

The Gray v Mulberry Company (Design) Ltd appeal was fresh on the back of another “ism” claim, this time involving vegetarianism.

In Conisbee v Crossley Farms Ltd and others [2019] an Employment Tribunal could not be persuaded that vegetarianism amounts to a philosophical belief capable of protection under the Equality Act 2010. According to the act a belief must have a certain level of cogency and seriousness similar to that of a religious belief.

Mr Conisbee is a vegetarian and had resigned from his job as a waiter in a hotel owned by Crossley Farms Limited. He worked there for 5 months and during this time alleged that he was given food by his colleagues that contained meat, for example containing gelatin. Mr Conisbee claimed that he was discriminated on the grounds of philosophical belief – in his case vegetarianism – and aimed to persuade the Employment Tribunal that vegetarianism was indeed a ‘philosophical belief’ capable of protection under the Equality Act 2010.

In response, Crossley Farms Limited submitted that despite Mr Conisbee’s genuine belief, they proposed that vegetarianism is not about human life and behaviour, but instead about the lives of animals. They also noted the more fragile nature of vegetarianism in people’s lives – arguing that people often practice it at some point in their life but not always.

The Employment Tribunal held that vegetarianism could not be considered a philosophical belief because it did not concern a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour. They concluded that it was a lifestyle choice that did not possess an adequate level of cohesion and seriousness.

In the case of Conisbee, the tribunal concluded that although the claimant’s belief was clearly an admirable statement, it could not relate to a substantial aspect of human life and behaviour. While it is worthy of respect in a democratic society, the tribunal decided it does not have a similar status or cogency to a religious belief.

This is a curious case as it poses a challenge to the seriousness of vegetarianism and also the definitions of philosophical belief under the EqA.

With an increasing amount of people turning to vegetarianism or veganism, there is further scrutiny upon its meaning and weight within law.

Interestingly, the tribunal seemed to highlight the vaguer nature of vegetarianism as opposed to veganism – the reason for being a vegetarian can differ greatly, whereas the arguments for being vegan are largely the same. As such, the tribunal noted that veganism has a clear cogency and cohesion, suggesting it could possibly be considered under the Equality Act. In an upcoming case, the Employment Tribunal are due to consider a case where ‘ethical veganism’ aims to be included under the EqA.