In 1996 Bruce Anderson, the “Vegan Bus Driver,” gained renown when he was fired from an Orange County, California transit authority for refusing to distribute hamburger coupons as part of a promotional campaign. Anderson filed a charge of religious discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which concluded that the authority violated Title VII by failing to accommodate moral and ethical beliefs that Anderson held with the strength of traditional religious views. The authority paid Anderson $50,000 to settle his case before a court had a chance to decide whether the EEOC was correct that veganism is the functional equivalent of a religion for purposes of Title VII.
A similar religious accommodation issue evaded court review in the same way recently with settlement of a case brought by a vegan hospital employee in Cincinnati who was fired for refusing to get a flu vaccination because it contained animal by-products that her beliefs prevented her from consuming. We previously wrote about the lawsuit that the employee filed in 2011 against Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. The employee, a hospital customer service representative, claimed that Title VII required the hospital to accommodate her religious commitment to veganism by letting her opt out of the flu vaccination. Late last week the employee and the hospital informed the court that they had reached a settlement of the case. The terms of their deal have not been disclosed.
Whether employers must change standard work requirements to accommodate strict vegetarian principles of vegan employees depends on both general and case-specific questions. The general question is whether courts should treat veganism as a religion protected against discrimination by Title VII and state law counterparts. The hospital tried to get the employee’s complaint dismissed on the theory that veganism is not a religion but a dietary preference or social philosophy.
The court denied the motion, saying the question before it was whether the employee had alleged a “plausible” claim, and the court found it plausible that she could subscribe to veganism “with a sincerity equating [to] that of traditional religious views.” If the case had not been settled, the hospital could have tried to prove at trial that the employee’s personal beliefs about veganism did not occupy in her life “a place parallel to that filled by … God” – the broad standard set by the U.S. Supreme Court and federal regulations for protection against religious discrimination under Title VII.
The hospital could also have tried to establish at trial that the hospital had the right to require the employee to be vaccinated because protecting the safety of patients outweighed her dietary choices, no matter how sincerely she held them or how central they were to her beliefs. As we have previously noted, hospitals must navigate potentially conflicting government directives and public policies when deciding whether and how to mandate flu vaccinations. While Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and the employee both decided that it was in their best interest to settle rather than to continue fighting over the meaning and application of Title VII, other employers still await solid guidance in this area.