In a recent decision by the United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio, a hospital employee who was fired for refusing to accept a flu shot on the grounds that she is vegan was permitted to proceed with a religious discrimination claim against the hospital. Chenzira v. Cincinnati Children’s Hosp. Med. Ctr., No. 1:11-CV-00917, 2012 WL 6721098 (S.D. Ohio Dec. 27, 2012).
Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center (the Hospital) employed Sakile Chenizra (Chenizra) as a customer service representative. The Hospital had a policy that all employees must be vaccinated with a flu vaccine, which contains a bi-product of egg and is tested on animals. Chenizra refused the flu vaccine on the grounds that she is vegan. Veganism is the practice of eliminating all animal products from one’s diet, including not only meat and fish, but also dairy products, eggs and often honey, as well as other animal-derived substances. Because the flu vaccine contained animal products, Chenizra refused the shot and was terminated for violating the Hospital’s policy.
Chenizra sued the Hospital for religious discrimination under Title VII and Chapter 4112 of the Ohio Revised Code. The Hospital moved to dismiss the suit on the grounds that veganism does not qualify as a religion, but rather is nothing more than a self-imposed dietary preference or social philosophy. Chenizra responded that her practice constitutes a moral and ethical belief which is sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views. Chenizra relied on the EEOC Guidelines on Discrimination Because of Religion, which state in pertinent part, “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.”
Chenizra also attached an essay to her response brief entitled “The Biblical Basis of Veganism,” and she cited to biblical passages in her request for religious accommodation. The Hospital replied that Plaintiff’s essay referred to veganism as a philosophy or diet, and that Plaintiff strategically “cherry-picked” Bible verses to support her position that veganism has a religious background. The Hospital argued that there are a host of Bible verses indicating permission to consume animal products and thus veganism cannot find its root in biblical literature and that the Court should not consider the essay in its determination.
The Court denied the Hospital’s motion to dismiss. First, it stated that in the context of a motion to dismiss, the Court merely needs to determine whether Chenizra had alleged a plausible claim. The Court found it plausible that Chenizra could subscribe to veganism with a sincerity equating that of traditional religious views. The Court added that Chenizra’s inclusion of essays and biblical excerpts bolstered its conclusion. It noted that although the EEOC Guidelines make it clear that it is not necessary that a religious group espouse a belief before it can qualify as religious, the fact that Chenizra alleged that she is not alone in her view that veganism has religious undertones gave credence to her position. Accordingly, at this very early stage of the litigation, the Court found that it was inappropriate to dismiss Plaintiff’s claims for religious discrimination based on her adherence to veganism.
The Court’s decision demonstrates that certain beliefs and practices that may not traditionally be considered religious may in certain courts and agencies garner protection under religious discrimination laws, as long as the plaintiff can show that the belief or practice is related to a moral or ethical belief which is sincerely held with the same strength of traditional religious views.