Veganism May be a Religion for Employment Discrimination
Posted on Employment Law News February 2, 2013 by author
Is veganism a religious belief under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964? Based on a recent order from a United States District Court in Ohio, the answer is possibly yes. In Chenzira v. Cincinnati Children’s Hosp. Med. Ctr., the Plaintiff’s federal and state religious discrimination claims withstood the Defendant’s 12(b)(6) Motion to Dismiss because the Court found it plausible that Plaintiff could subscribe to veganism with the sincerity equating to that of traditional religious views.
The Plaintiff worked for Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center as a Customer Service Representative. The Hospital required its employees get a flu vaccine, but Chenzira refused to be vaccinated because she was a vegan – a person who does not ingest animals or animal bi-products – and the vaccine was cultured with chicken eggs. The Hospital terminated her employment for refusing to be vaccinated, even though in the past the Hospital accommodated her request to forgo the vaccine. Chenzira sued the Hospital alleging religious discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 contending that the discharge violated her religious and philosophical convictions as a vegan. The Hospital filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, arguing that veganism is a dietary preference, not a religious belief.
The Hospital argued that Chenzira’s religious discrimination claim failed because veganism is not a religion, but rather is no more than a dietary preference or social philosophy.
Plaintiff responded that her practice constituted a moral and ethical belief which is sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views. Specifically, Plaintiff cited 29 C.F.R. § 1605.1, “whether or not a practice or belief is religious is not an issue . . . the Commission will define religious practices to include moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of religious views.” Id. Plaintiff also attached an essay with her response, “The Biblical Basis of Veganism,” and cited to Biblical passages.
The Court denied Defendant’s motion to dismiss, finding it inappropriate to dismiss Plaintiff’s claims for religious discrimination based on her veganism at this early stage of the litigation. The Court extended the discovery deadlines and articulated that the ruling on motion to dismiss in no way addressed the Defendant’s justification for its termination of Plaintiff. Such evidence may include the type and extent to which Chenzira had contact with patients, Hospital patients’ safety and the risk posed by Chenzira’s refusal to be vaccinated.
This decision, although not dispositive on the issue whether veganism is a religious practice, should serve as a warning for employers that requests for accommodation based on non-traditional religious views should be given the same careful consideration as those arising under traditional organized religions. Moreover, employers should consider consulting an experienced employment counsel to help determine if a religious accommodation would be appropriate.