Veganism = Religion?
Posted on March 18, 2013 by spencelo
Spencer Lo

When one considers the idea of 'veganism,' the notion that it is a religion--one relevantly similar to traditional religions--may strike some not only as obviously false but also absurd. Isn't veganism (obviously) a diet at the very least or a philosophy at best? What does it offer on the 'big questions' usually associated with religion, such as those pertaining to the origin of the universe, the after-life, supernatural beings, and the human soul? Most people I'm sure, including vegans, do not consider veganism to be a religion as such, even though it may be required or encouraged by certain religions.

However, as illustrated in a recent lawsuit in Ohio, it turns out that veganism could qualify as a religion under federal anti-discrimination law. Professor Sherry F. Colb explained the ongoing case in her recent piece. Sakile Chenzira, a former customer service representative at a hospital, refused a mandatory flu shot (produced in chicken eggs) because it conflicted with her convictions as an ethical vegan, which resulted in the termination of her employment. She then sued the hospital alleging that the firing constituted religious discrimination under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act ("It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer--to discharge any individual--because of such individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin."). In a ruling denying the hospital's motion to dismiss, the federal district court judge held that Chenzira's claim may actually have merit.

The relevant definition of 'religion' cited in the ruling appears in the Code of Federal Regulations:

In 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 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.

Under this broad definition of religion, specifically "religious practices," if an individual sincerely subscribed to veganism "with the strength of traditional religious views," then veganism would qualify as a religion, thereby warranting protection from religious discrimination. The court found it plausible that Chenzira could satisfy this standard, and as Professor Colb explained, it would probably be difficult to challenge the sincerity of her veganism given her willingness to forgo a flu shot despite the repercussions (both for her employment and (potentially) to her health). Additionally, for Chenzira's veganism to qualify as religious, it isn't necessary--although it is helpful-that other committed vegans share her belief on whether to receive a flu shot in her situation. "The fact that no religious group espouses such beliefs or the fact that the religious group to which the individual professes to belong may not accept such belief will not determine whether the belief is a religious belief of the employee or prospective employee." 29 C.F.R. 1605.1.

So the case for identifying veganism as a religion under federal law stands on firm ground, even though the equivalency may strike many as deeply counterintuitive. The trickier issue is whether the hospital's refusal to grant Chenzira a religious exemption complied with the legal requirement that employers must "reasonably accommodate" "an employee's or prospective employee's religious observance or practice," if doing so can be accomplished "without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer's business." As Professor Colb explained,

The hospital has no legitimate interest in its employees consuming a cow's breast milk, but it certainly does have a legitimate interest in keeping the hospital influenza-free. If accommodating Ms. Chenzira's ethical veganism places hospital patients at a measurably increased risk of becoming ill with the flu, then the defendant may be able to fire her for refusing the vaccine, her veganism notwithstanding.

The facts as alleged appear to be in Chenzira's favor but the ultimate outcome is too soon to tell. However, one thing seems clear: earlier I asked what veganism offers on the 'big questions' usually associated with religion, but the better question is--why does it have to? Why shouldn't it deserve just as much legal protection as traditional, mainstream religious beliefs?


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[1] See Mariann Sullivan's commentary on this case as well.

[2] As reported in the NYT, the FDA recently approved an eggless flu vaccine.

[3] Back in 2002, a California court reached the opposite conclusion on whether veganism could qualify as a religion; read the full opinion here.

[4] Philosopher and legal scholar Brian Leiter contends in his recent book "Why Tolerate Religion?" that "all claims of conscience--religious and non-religious--deserve toleration," that "there's nothing special about religion that gives special moral or legal weight to the demands it places on the consciences of believers."

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