A ruling from an Ohio federal court warns that a religious discrimination claim can arise from of a set of beliefs that an employer might not ordinarily equate with religion. In Chenzira v. Cincinnati Childrens’ Hospital Medical Center, an employee alleged that she was discharged because she refused to take a flu vaccination, which the hospital required of its employees. Ms. Chenzira objected to the vaccination because she was a vegan – a person who does not ingest animals or animal bi-products – and the vaccination contained animal bi-products. The employee claimed that her discharge constituted religious discrimination and that the employer unlawfully denied her request for religious accommodation, which was an exception to the employer’s vaccination requirement.
The employer moved to dismiss the employee’s lawsuit on grounds that veganism is not a religion, but rather is a dietary preference or social philosophy. The employee responded that her practice constituted “a moral and ethical belief that is sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views” consistent with established Supreme Court rulings as well as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s regulations, which provides as follows:
“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.”
The court sided with the employee because at the very beginning pleading stage of the case, all she needed to show was that she had a plausible claim. The Court found it plausible that the employee could hold to veganism with a sincerity equivalent to traditional religious views and therefore denied the motion to dismiss. That is not to say that the employee will ultimately be able to prove that veganism is a religious practice or that the employer could not prove a defense justifying its denial of her request for an accommodation. The case does, however, act as a warning to employers that requests for accommodation based on non-traditional religious views should be given the same careful analysis as those arising under traditional religions. If faced with an employee’s accommodation request based on a firmly held set of beliefs, employers should consult employment counsel to help determine if a religious accommodation would be appropriate.