Thursday, January 10, 2013

Is Vegan a Religion Under Discrimination Law?

In yesterday's post, I addressed an employer's duty to accommodate employees who object to vaccines for religious reasons. That post was inspired by Chenzira v. Cincinnati Children's Hospital in which an employee was terminated for refusing to get a flu shot because she was a "Vegan." She filed a religious discrimination lawsuit . . . but is "Vegan" really a religion?

The EEOC defines religious beliefs to "include moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views." 29 C.F.R. § 1605.1. I think that covers some vegans and vegetarians who have moral objections to the treatment of animals.

The Court agreed, by holding that the plaintiff could move forward with her claim. However, this is only the motion to dismiss phase so the Court only held that it was plausible that she held her beliefs about veganism with a conviction equivalent to religion.

I should also point out that religion and dietary restrictions are often intertwined. Don't eat pork, fast on certain days, only eat food that has been blessed a certain way . . . or, as a Catholic, my personal favorite: eat McDonald's Filet-O-Fish every Friday during Lent (not sure that's the exact rule). Here, the employee specifically cited the Bible in her request for accommodation. Pro tip: if the employee cites the Bible in an accommodation request, then I'd probably treat it like a religious accommodation request. Now, that's not to say you can't argue it's not really a religious accommodation request come litigation time.

Bottom line: it's not enough to just ask "is Vegan a religion?" If the aversion to animal products is part of a set of religious beliefs then yes, it probably is a religion. If the individual has really strong beliefs on the subject even if it's not part of a specific recognized religion, then yes it is still probably a religion. On the other hand, if the employee just thinks "meat tastes icky" and cheats and has a burger now and then - or when it's something really important like a sweet new leather purse . . . then it's probably not a religion.

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Image: Lettuce from Wikipedia under Creative Commons License.