Veganism = Religion?
Posted on March 18, 2013 by spencelo
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
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.
relevant definition of 'religion' cited in the ruling appears in the
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.
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
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?
 See Mariann Sullivan's
commentary on this case as well.
reported in the NYT, the FDA recently approved an eggless flu vaccine.
 Back in 2002, a California court reached the
opposite conclusion on whether veganism could qualify as a religion;
read the full opinion
 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."