Be Careful What You Dismiss as Not a "Real" Religion When Employees Seek Religious Accommodation: Court Holds Veganism Could Plausibly Be a "Religious Belief"
In a recent decision in Chenzira v. Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, Case No. 1:11-cv-00917, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio in Cincinnati held that sincerely held beliefs in veganism could plausibly be considered religious beliefs protected against religious discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Ohio state law. The Court rejected the argument that veganism was merely a social philosophy or dietary preference.
Sakile Chenzira was a customer service representative for Cincinnati Children’s Hospital for over 10 years. In 2010, the Hospital terminated Chenzira for her refusal to be vaccinated for the flu. As a vegan, she objected to flu shots because the flu vaccine is grown in chicken eggs, and vegans do not ingest any animal product or byproduct. Chenzira requested a religious accommodation to be excluded from the vaccine requirement but was denied and terminated. Prior to 2010, the Hospital had accommodated her request to forgo the flu vaccine.
Chenzira sued, alleging religious discrimination under Title VII and Ohio Revised Code (O.R.C.) Chapter 4112, as well as wrongful discharge in violation of public policy. The Hospital moved to dismiss. The Hospital argued that veganism is not a religion, but rather, a social philosophy or dietary preference not entitled to protection under Title VII or O.R.C. Chapter 4112. The Hospital relied on the Sixth Circuit’s decision in Spies v. Voinovich, 173 F.3d 398, which denied a prisoner abuse claim related to prison food based on the inmate being a Buddhist vegetarian. The Hospital also argued that her claim was barred because Chenzira failed to file her charge with the EEOC within 300 days of her termination, waiting 309 days after her termination to file the charge. The Hospital moved to dismiss the public policy/wrongful discharge claim on the grounds that Title VII and O.R.C. Chapter 4112 adequately provide a remedy for religious discrimination.
Judge S. Arthur Spiegel held that veganism may be entitled to protection as a religion because the definition of “religious practices” in EEOC regulations (29 C.F.R. § 1605.1) “include[s] moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of religious views.” He also gave some credit to Chenzira’s citation of biblical passages supporting veganism and Chenzira’s citation to them in requesting a religious accommodation from the Hospital. He also noted that it lends credence to her position that veganism is a religious belief because others espouse similar beliefs. Judge Spiegel distinguished the Sixth Circuit decision in Spies on the ground that the inmate’s dietary request was adequately met by providing a vegetarian diet, as the inmate himself conceded that a more restrictive vegan diet was not a requirement of his Buddhist faith. The Court did caution that it was only holding that it was “plausible” that Chenzira’s veganism was a religious belief entitled to protection under the law, not that she actually set forth a claim of religious discrimination. At the conclusion of discovery, her case still has to withstand a summary judgment challenge, which will not be based on the liberal “plausibility” standard.
As for the charge filing requirements, the Court held that her EEOC charge was timely filed because her EEOC intake questionnaire was completed within 300 days and was sufficiently detailed to be construed as a request for remedial action. It was clear from her intake questionnaire that she intended to file a charge and sought government assistance in remedying her situation. The Court relied on a 2008 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Federal Express Corp. v. Holowecki, 552 U.S. 389, holding that an intake questionnaire can be construed as a “charge” if it expresses intent to: file a charge, seek remedy with the EEOC, and notify the employer of the accusations (including all identifying and contact information for the employer).
The Court did dismiss the wrongful discharge claim as barred because Title VII and Ohio’s civil rights statute (O.R.C. Chapter 4112) adequately protect against religious discrimination.
As the title of this post makes clear, employers should be careful in immediately dismissing non-mainstream beliefs as not entitled to protection under federal and state law. The Court in Chenzira reaffirmed that the law protects moral and ethical beliefs not traditionally thought of as “religions” if they are held with the strength of religious views.