By: Alden J. Parker
When a workplace practice conflicts with an employee’s religious beliefs, the employer must consider whether a religious accommodation is available. This is the basic rule of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Many times, these issues arise in the form of scheduling conflicts when an employee’s religion compels worship on a particular day. Typical examples of religious accommodations can include changing an employee’s regular working schedule or allowing him or her to switch shifts with a co-worker. Such accommodations are typically made in response to a relatively traditional perception of religious expression. However, an employee’s religion, extends beyond traditional notions of religious practices. So what happens when an employer is presented with religious accommodation requests from Vegans? While clearly a first world problem, our Courts have been busy addressing this weighty issue.
We all remember the story of Bruce Anderson, who in 1996 was fired from an Orange County transit authority for refusing to participate in a promotional campaign because it involved distributing hamburger coupons. Anderson, the “Vegan Bus Driver” filed a charge of religious discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). Now it wasn’t as if the transit authority made him eat the hamburgers. They didn’t even change his driver seat to leather. Nevertheless, the EEOC determined the transit authority violated Title VII by failing to accommodate “moral and ethical beliefs” that Anderson held “with the strength of traditional religious views.” The EEOC then pursued the matter in Court on behalf of Anderson. We had anxiously waited for a court determination on this issue. Unfortunately, the authority settled the case with Anderson for $50,000. This settlement was before the court could decide whether the EEOC was correct that veganism is the functional equivalent of a religion for purposes of Title VII.
Recently, another vegan religious accommodation issue settled before the court could make a final determination. This case involved a vegan hospital employee in Cincinnati who was fired for refusing to get a flu vaccination because it contained animal by-products (eggs). The employee claimed that her beliefs prevented her from “consuming” the flu vaccine. The employee, a hospital customer service representative, claimed that Title VII required the hospital to accommodate her “religious commitment to veganism” by letting her opt out of the flu vaccination. Last week the employee and the hospital informed the court that they settled the case for an undisclosed amount. However, the settlement did not come before the Court had already indicated that the claim was a viable religious discrimination case.
When the employee first sued the hospital for religious discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the hospital asked the trial court to dismiss the lawsuit pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). The hospital argued that vegan-ism is a dietary preference, not a religious belief. The court denied the motion to dismiss, saying the employee had alleged a “plausible” claim regarding an employee subscribing to veganism “with a sincerity equating [to] that of traditional religious views.”
Because this case was decided on specific facts, it didn’t create a new category of “religious beliefs.” As a result, the court’s decision doesn’t indicate that every request for accommodation by a vegan needs to be granted. However, employers need to be very careful in immediately dismissing nonmainstream beliefs as not being entitled to protection under federal and state law. At the very least, the Court will likely allow the claim to move forward into expensive and protracted litigation without dismissing the case out of hand. This is because the federal law’s definition of religion is quite broad. Social, political, and economic philosophies or personal preferences are not protected religious beliefs. However, if an employee holds a belief not traditionally thought of as “religious” with the strength of mainstream religious views, you should consider a request for accommodation. I have several friends who are “religiously” following their fantasy football teams as I type.
The Cincinnati hospital and their former employee both decided it was better to settle this case rather than spending money litigating this issue through to the end. So the rest of us will simply have to wait for another court to be presented with this issue in order to obtain more guidance in this area. I for one will wait while eating a big Rib-Eye. See you all at the steakhouse!