Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits workplace discrimination based on several factors, including religion. The "Employer Practices" section of Title VII states:
It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer - (1) to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin; or (2) to limit, segregate, or classify his employees or applicants for employment in any way which would deprive or tend to deprive any individual of employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect his status as an employee, because of such individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.
While this section lists several different characteristics of people, veganism does not appear as one of the categories. Veganism, a belief that one should not consume any type of animal product or byproduct, would appear to most to be a dietary decision, similar to someone deciding to cut out sweets or carbs or some other category of food for whatever reason. But in an employment discrimination lawsuit being heard right over the Kentucky border in Cincinnati, Ohio, one former employee is claiming that she was discriminated against because of her religious beliefs based on her being a vegan.
The problems started when the employee, who worked at a children's hospital, refused to get a flu shot because the vaccination is incubated in an egg. Taking the shot would have gone against her vegan beliefs. The hospital fired her for her refusing to be vaccinated. Her discrimination and wrongful termination lawsuit claimed she was discriminated against for her religious beliefs, namely veganism. The hospital filed a motion to dismiss, stating that the former employee "failed to state a claim for a religion protected under law," which means they don't consider veganism a religion and didn't think the court would either. To the hospital's surprise, the court denied their dismissal motion because it felt the employee should have a chance to prove that her veganism is indeed a religious belief.
The court's decision doesn't mean the employee was definitely wrongfully terminated. But it does allow for the possibility that she was. Because she was employed in a children's hospital, the hospital may argue that her refusal to be vaccinated put the other employees and general public at risk, which is one reason an employer can legally refuse to make special accommodations for an employee. However, even if this argument holds up in this case, it may not in a different situation that does not occur in a healthcare setting. The Kentucky employment discrimination attorneys at Miller & Falkner will be keeping a close eye on this case. If you are a Kentucky or Indiana employee that has been discriminated against at work, contact our office to schedule a consultation.
Opinion and Order Re: Sakile S. Chenzira v Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center; United States District Court, Southern District of Ohio Western Division; December 27, 2012