Title VII requires employers to reasonably accomodate an employee’s sincerely held religious belief unless doing so would create an undue hardship. A recent federal court decision in Ohio reminds us that this requirement extends beyond what are typically viewed as mainstream religions.
In Chenzira v. Cincinnati Childrens’ Hospital a nurse refused to be vaccinated for the flu. She objected on religious grounds because she is a vegan and the flu vaccine is grown in chicken eggs. The Hospital then fired her. Ms. Chenzira filed suit and the Hospital moved to dismiss the case on the grounds that veganism is not a religion.
In denying the Motion to Dismiss the Court held that veganism may be entitled to protection as a religion becuase the definition of “religious practices” in the EEOC regulations includes “moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of religious views”. The Court also relied on Ms. Chenzira’s citation of biblical passages supporting veganism, her citation of those passages when she requested an accomodation, and that many others are vegans. Since the Court was ruling on a Motion to Dismiss this does not mean that it will find that veganism is a religion after discovery is completed. The ruling also did not address whether the termination was for the legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason of protecting the safety of patients.
The take away for employers is that non-mainstream beliefs may be entitield to protection as religious beliefs under Title VII and state law. As a result, if an employee refuses to comply with a work requirement and cites a religious basis for doing so, seek legal counsel for advice.