Monday, 04 February 2013 10:29
By Robert Crump
I’m soy vegan
In Cincinnati, a woman was employed as a customer service representative at a hospital for more than a decade. To safeguard its patients, the hospital required all employees to get a flu shot. This was a common practice among healthcare providers. However, in 2010, the woman refused to get a flu vaccination shot because she was a vegan and the vaccine was grown in chicken eggs. She claimed the hospital had accommodated her request to forgo the vaccination prior to 2010 and that it should have to continue to do so.
Because she refused the vaccination, the woman was discharged from her position at the hospital. The terminated employee then sued the hospital, stating her dismissal amounted to unlawful religious discrimination. She contended the hospital policy of requiring flu shots violated her religious and philosophical convictions as a vegan - a person who does not ingest any animal or animal by - products.
Is veganism really a belief?
The question arose as to whether veganism is a moral and ethical belief, akin to religion, and which would qualify for religious protection or was rather just a social philosophy or dietary preference. The hospital claimed veganism was not a religion and therefore not a protected class. The hospital further argued the employee’s practice was no more than a dietary preference or a social philosophy. The dismissed employee argued her veganism constituted a moral and ethical belief that equated to that of traditional religious views. She even went so far as to submit an essay entitled “The Biblical Basis of Veganism” to support her argument.
The federal court in Ohio laid out the evidence the hospital would need to justify its mandatory vaccination program. This would include the nature and extent of the woman’s contact with patients and the risk her refusal would pose. The federal court then denied the hospital’s motion to dismiss the religious discrimination claims, rationalizing that it was at least plausible she held her beliefs as a vegan with the same level of sincerity as a traditionally held religious belief.
Leaving the door open
This decision could add a significant element to the myriad of ideologies that may qualify as a protected, religious belief. In today’s era, employers should consider consulting with experienced counsel before denying an employee’s request for religious accommodation. As demonstrated here, by denying the hospital’s motion to dismiss, this federal court has left open a new possibility that veganism and similar dietary restrictions could be protected the same as traditional religions in the context of employment discrimination cases.