Author: Beth P. Zoller, XpertHR Legal Editor
In the midst of the flu pandemic sweeping the nation, a federal court in Ohio has provided some food for thought to employers that require their employees to get a flu shot. In Chenzira v. Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, 2012 U.S. Dist. Lexis 182139 (S.D. Ohio, 2012), an employee who was terminated for refusing to get a flu shot because the vaccine contained chicken egg product, which violated her religious and philosophical beliefs as a vegan, may proceed with her religious discrimination claim.
As many employers are aware, Title VII and similar state and local laws protect individuals from discrimination based on sincerely held religious beliefs and practices. However, for many employers, this decision stretches the definition of religion well beyond the parameters of what they consider a traditional religion, requiring employers to think twice when faced with uncommon religious accommodation requests.
Sakile Chenzira (Chenzira), a service representative for over 10 years with Cincinnati Children's Medical Center (CCMC), refused to get a mandatory flu vaccine grown in chicken eggs because she was a vegan, and did not consume any animal food or dairy products or byproducts, including eggs. Prior to 2010, CCMC had accommodated Chenzira's request to abstain from the vaccine. However, in 2010, CCMC denied Chenzira's religious accommodation request and subsequently terminated her employment.
When faced with Chenzira's religious discrimination claim, CCMC argued that veganism was not a religion, but instead was merely a "social philosophy or dietary preference" not protected under federal or state law. The Ohio district court disagreed and refused to dismiss the case. In finding that veganism could be considered a religion, the court relied on an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) regulation stating that a religious practice includes "moral and ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views." 29 C.F.R. 1605.1. Thus, the court found that it was possible that Chenzira could believe in veganism "with a sincerity equaling that of traditional religious views." The court also relied on an essay "The Biblical Basis of Veganism" and biblical passages regarding veganism to conclude that Chenzira was not alone, but part of a group with this belief.
Tips for Employers
In light of this decision, employers should avoid rushing to judgment when faced with claims of religious discrimination, harassment or accommodation from individuals who do not practice a well-known or organized religion (e.g., Christianity, Islam, Judaism). At present, this need for careful consideration can be applied to veganism and accommodations to a workplace flu vaccine requirement, but it also has wider implications. This decision makes clear that courts are willing to define religion broadly and will protect moral, ethical and philosophical beliefs and practices, as well as beliefs in religions that are unknown or uncommon and do not have a significant following, if such beliefs are sincerely held with the same strength as traditional religious views.
However, an employer should not be afraid to engage in the interactive process with employees and request additional information if the employer is unaware of or unfamiliar with the employee's religious beliefs or practices. An employer must avoid jumping to conclusions and should approach each situation on a case by case basis, making an individualized assessment after engaging in the interactive process.
Further, employers should remember that under Title VII, a religious belief does not need to have a concept of a god or gods, supreme beings or an afterlife. As such, employers are prohibited from discriminating against atheists.