By Christine Wilkinson
Hopefully employers are aware of the legal requirement to accommodate an employee?s religion in the workplace. ?Under Title VII, employers cannot discriminate against individuals because of their religion in hiring, firing and other terms and conditions of employment. Title VII also requires employers to reasonably accommodate the religious practices of an employee or prospective employee, unless it would cause an undue hardship to the employer.? The process itself can be fraught with its own particular difficulties: Is the belief sincerely held? Will the requested accommodation constitute an undue hardship? ?What happens if the accommodation costs the employer money? ?A recent case presents a different, and potentially even more difficult question: What should an employer do if it is not sure that the employee?s stated religion actually is a religion? What if the employer believes the accommodation request is really accommodating an employee?s personal preference?
In Chenzira v. Cincinnati Children?s Hospital Medical Center, No. 1:11-CV-00917, 2012 WL 6721098 (S.D. Ohio Dec. 27, 2012), a hospital fired a receptionist who refused to get a flu shot because she was vegan.? The hospital had a policy that all employees must be vaccinated with a flu vaccine, which contains eggs and is tested on animals. The employee sued, claiming the hospital violated Title VII because veganism is her religion. The hospital quickly moved to dismiss the case, arguing that veganism is not a religion, but a self-imposed dietary preference or social philosophy. ?Indeed, a 2002 case in California held that veganism is not a religion.
The Court in Ohio, somewhat surprisingly, did not dismiss the case. Rather, the judge is permitting the case to move forward to trial before a jury. The judge noted that it was possible that the receptionist?s veganism could be a ?moral or ethical belief? adhered to with the force of a religious belief. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has said it will treat such beliefs as entitled to reasonable accommodation under Title VII even if they are not per se ?religions? in the traditional sense.
What does this mean for employers?? Employers should tread carefully when handling religious accommodation requests. This case demonstrates that even beliefs and practices that have not traditionally been considered religious may deserve protection under Title VII if the plaintiff demonstrates that the belief or practice is related to a moral or ethical belief that is sincerely held with the same strength of traditional religious views.
SMART TIP: Just as with discussing an accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act, Title VII requires that employers engage in an interactive process with each employee requesting a religious accommodation. One size does not fit all, and an individualized, case-by-case approach, will help an employer defend against any future claims.