Diversity Insight

Veganism may be a religious belief requiring accommodation

by Rebecca A. Kopp

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio has expanded the practices that may be considered protected religious views. The court refused to dismiss a vegan employee’s federal and state religious discrimination claims and permitted the parties to engage in further discovery (the pretrial exchange of evidence relevant to the case).

Facts 

Sakile Chenzira worked as a customer service representative at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center for more than a decade. She routinely refused her employer’s requirement that hospital employees receive an annual flu shot. As a practicing vegan, she objected to the flu shot because the vaccine is grown in chicken eggs and vegans do not ingest any animal products or by-products.

Before 2010, the hospital had accommodated Chenzira’s request not to receive a flu shot. However, in 2010, it denied her requested religious accommodation to be excluded from the vaccine requirement. On December 3, the hospital terminated her.

Chenzira sued the hospital, claiming her discharge violated her right to exercise her religious and philosophical convictions. She filed both state and federal discrimination charges. The hospital asked the court to dismiss her claims, arguing that veganism doesn’t qualify as a religion.

District court’s decision

The court refused to dismiss the case, finding that it’s plausible Chenzira could subscribe to veganism with a sincerity of the same level as traditional religious views. The court didn’t conclude that she had definitively set forth a claim for religious discrimination, but it did permit the case to proceed. Therefore, it permitted the parties to test in discovery whether Chenzira’s veganism rises to the level of a traditional religious belief.

The hospital argued that veganism isn’t a religion; rather, it’s merely a social philosophy or dietary preference that isn’t entitled to protection under federal or state law. Chenzira countered that her veganism is more than a philosophy; it’s a moral and ethical belief system that she holds with the strength of traditional religious beliefs. She specifically equated her veganism to the federal statutory definition of “religious practices,” which includes “moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of religious views.”

Further, Chenzira cited the essay “The Biblical Basis of Veganism” to support her assertion that she made a request for a religious accommodation. The court gave credit to her citation of biblical passages in support of her arguments, noting that the fact that she wasn’t alone in articulating her viewpoint lent credence to her position.

The court didn’t address whether Chenzira’s assertion could withstand a summary judgment challenge (i.e., a request for dismissal before trial) and implied that she will need to establish through discovery whether her viewpoint is sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views. The court noted that it wasn’t addressing the hospital’s likely defense of her termination, the safety of its patients. However, the court provided the hospital with a discovery map, noting the types of evidence necessary to establish a justification for the termination, including the extent to which Chenzira had contact with patients and the risk her refusal to be vaccinated could pose. Chenzira v. Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

Bottom line

Because this case was decided on specific facts, it didn’t create a new category of “religious beliefs.” As a result, the court’s decision doesn’t indicate that every request for accommodation by a vegan needs to be granted. However, you should be very careful in immediately dismissing nonmainstream beliefs as not being entitled to protection under federal and state law. The federal law’s definition of religion is quite broad. Social, political, and economic philosophies or personal preferences are not protected religious beliefs, but if an employee holds a belief not traditionally thought of as “religious” with the strength of mainstream religious views, you should consider her request for accommodation.

Further, with this year’s active flu season, it’s also important to remember that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has warned that employers shouldn’t compel all employees to be vaccinated. A general mandatory vaccination program is permissible as long as you provide a reasonable accommodation for employees with a disability or medical condition for which vaccination is contraindicated (such as an allergy to eggs) or for those who have a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance that prohibits them from receiving the flu shot.

Rebecca A. Kopp is an attorney with Porter Wright Morris & Arthur LLP in Columbus, Ohio. She may be contacted atrkopp@porterwright.com.