Is Veganism a Religion Under Anti-Discrimination Law? An Ohio Federal District Court Says Perhaps

In December 2010, the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center fired Sakile S. Chenzira, a Customer Service Representative, for refusing to get a seasonal flu vaccination, in violation of the hospital’s policy.  Ms. Chenzira had refused the vaccine because she is a vegan, and the vaccine is produced in chicken’s eggs, which are taken from animals and therefore are not vegan.

After being fired, Ms. Chenzira brought a lawsuit in federal court against the hospital, alleging—among other claims—that her termination violated her federal right under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights act to be free from religious discrimination.  The defendant moved to dismiss the claim, arguing that veganism does not qualify as a religion that triggers the protection of the law.

In a move that some have found surprising, a federal district court in the Southern District of Ohio denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss the case, concluding that a vegan may, depending on the evidence, have a legal ground for claiming that her veganism qualifies for the same protection as a sincerely held religious belief.  In this column, I will examine the district judge’s decision and explain what it does and does not say about the plaintiff’s decision to refuse a flu vaccine.

What Is a Vegan?

To have an informed discussion of whether a vegan is sufficiently comparable to a practitioner of Christianity or Islam to trigger the protection of a law prohibiting religious discrimination, it is important first to understand what it means to be a vegan.  Like practitioners of traditional religions, vegans have diverse ways of living and of manifesting their commitment to veganism.  Most ethical vegans do, however, share a commitment to the proposition that it is wrong to inflict suffering and death on animals in order to meet needs that can be met in other ways.

More concretely, this means that ethical vegans choose (a) to consume a plant-based diet, avoiding the flesh and bodily secretions (such as milk and eggs) of nonhuman animals, including cows, chickens, and fishes; (2) to wear exclusively non-animal-based clothing in lieu of fur, leather, wool, and other materials derived from the exploitation (and virtually always the slaughter, when animals outlive their utility to humans) of animals; and (c) to use body care products, such as shampoo, soap, and deodorants, that are derived from non-animal sources and that were safety-tested without the use of animals.

On the question of medications and vaccines, ethical vegans take different positions, and most acknowledge that the issue is far more difficult than the question whether to buy chickens’ eggs or cows’ milk yogurt at the supermarket.  Though the vaccine is not a vegan product, some vegans might take the view that in the absence of a vegan alternative vaccination, the existing flu shot is necessary to the vegan’s own or to others’ health.

For similar reasons, a vegan who is sick and needs a medication that is currently available only in a form that contains animal ingredients might conclude that necessity permits the use of the medication.  At the present time, U.S. law also requires that all medications in the United States be tested on animals, and many are synthesized with non-vegan additives, so vegans often lack the option of taking a vegan version of the medicine.  When health or safety is at risk and alternatives are unavailable, some people who consider themselves ethical vegans will take a non-vegan medicine, while others will not.

What Is a Religion?

The next question to confront, in determining whether veganism qualifies as a religion under Title VII, is this one:  What is a religion?  Some religions are old and thus long-recognized as religions, including the well-known families of religion that go under the headings of Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  A member of one of these faiths may encounter little resistance in claiming, in an anti-discrimination legal action, that he or she is a member of a religious group.

Under the Code of Federal Regulations relevant to the definition of religion under federal anti-discrimination law, “[i]n most cases whether or not a practice or belief is religious is not at issue.  However, in those cases in which the issue does exist, the [Equal Employment Opportunity] 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 traditional religious views.”

Though readers may associate religion with a belief in God, a person can in fact be a very committed practitioner of a religion without actually believing in any supernatural beings.  Indeed, some established religions – such as Buddhism – do not necessarily even entail belief in such a being at all.  Growing up as an Orthodox Jew, I learned that my religion did not require a belief in God or in any other phenomena; it required only that one conform one’s behavior to religious requirements.

Is Veganism a Religion?