Atheists, Native American Spiritualism, and Vegans: or “What do you mean I am fired for not getting a flu shot?”

A) atheism;  B) Native American spiritualism;  C) white supremacy;  D) veganism.

Which is the odd one out?

SAT question?  LSAT maybe?  Perhaps a round of Sesame Street’s beloved game “Which One of These Things is Not Like the Other; Which One of These Things Does Not Belong?”

But don’t be fooled.

The more accurate question would ask, “What do atheism, Native American spiritualism, white supremacy, and veganism have in common?”  Surprisingly, the answer may be that all four have been invoked as religions whose subscribers are protected from discrimination under Title VII.

Yes, you read that correctly. Title VII prohibits employers from discriminating against employees based on several recognized classes, including religion, and some federal courts have recognized groups of white supremacists as a religion under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Ironic, isn’t it?  The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has also decided that Native American spiritualism, atheism, and agnosticism are religions protected from discrimination under Title VII.  And since this is the time of year we are all being asked to get out flu shots, it is worth remembering that an Ohio federal court has found it is “plausible” for veganism (“Veganism”?) to qualify as a religion under Title VII.

Run that past me again?

This story started in 2010, when a customer service representative in a hospital was fired for refusing the flu vaccine the hospital required for all of its employees. The former employee claimed her termination discriminated against her based on her religion because the use of animal products in creating and manufacturing vaccines violated her beliefs as a vegan.

Not surprisingly, the hospital immediately asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit, but the court declined to do so since it was unwilling to say that veganism is not a religion.  Employers and employees alike should note, however, that the former employee’s argument that her veganism was a moral and ethical belief system and therefore constituted a protected religion under Title VII relied, at least in part, on ties between veganism and Judeo-Christian principles.  This appears to have assisted in swaying the court, as the court cited the former employee’s references to Bible passages shunning the use of animals for food and essay titled “The Biblical Basis of Veganism.”

The jury may still be out on whether employers must recognize and reasonably accommodate an employee’s vegan lifestyle as that employee’s religion; but, at a minimum, this case serves as an important reminder of Title VII’s broad definition of “religion.”  Employers should ensure their policies require all personnel to exercise extreme caution before making decisions as to the legitimacy of an employee’s religious beliefs, especially at this time of the year.

What time of year, you ask?  Christmas… no.  Chanukah… no.  Flu season!

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