A long-term customer service representative at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital was terminated when she refused to get a flu shot because she is vegan. Vegans do not ingest any animal product or byproduct, and the flu vaccine is grown in chicken eggs. Citing biblical passages supporting veganism, the employee requested that the hospital accommodate her by excluding her from the vaccine requirement. Although her request for an accommodation had been granted in prior years, in 2010 it was denied, and she was terminated. In response, she sued the Hospital claiming it discriminated against her based on her religion and in violation of Title VII and Ohio state law.
The Hospital, arguing that veganism was a social philosophy or dietary choice and not a religion, moved to dismiss the lawsuit. The judge allowed the case to proceed after concluding that veganism may be entitled to protection as a religion. The judge relied in large part on EEOC regulations that define “religious practices” as including “moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of religious views.” The judge also noted the fact that the employee cited biblical passages supporting veganism when requesting an accommodation led credence to her position that veganism is a religious belief. Chenzira v. Cincinnati Children’s Hosp. Med. Ctr., Case No. 1:11-cv-0197.
The fact that the employer’s motion to dismiss was denied does not necessarily mean this case will survive the long haul. Several years back, a California computer worker was denied a job in a pharmaceutical warehouse because he refused to take a mumps vaccine grown in chicken embryos because he is vegan. The California Court of Appeals affirmed dismissal of the religious discrimination claim, albeit under California law. The court said that the state law definition of “religious creed” was narrower than an EEOC guideline addressing “religion” under Title VII. Friedman v. Southern California Perm. Med. Group., No. B150017 (September 13, 2002).
In most cases whether or not a practice or belief is religious is not at issue, but creative plaintiffs may make it one. It doesn’t seem like it would be too difficult for everyone to come up with at least one thing that they feel is one of their “moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong which is sincerely held with the strength of religious views.” Without putting too much thought into it right now, I can come up with a few myself. How about you?