By Katie Loehrke, editor, J. J. Keller & Associates, Inc.
When a workplace practice conflicts with an employee’s religious beliefs, the employer must consider whether a religious accommodation is available.
Often, such scenarios arise in the form of scheduling conflicts when an employee’s religion compels worship on a particular day. Common examples of religious accommodations in such situations include changing an employee’s regular working schedule or allowing him or her to switch shifts with a coworker.
Schedule changes as accommodations are typically in response to a relatively traditional perception of religious expression. However, an employee’s religion, as protected by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, extends beyond traditional notions of religious practices.
Under Title VII, religious practices include all moral or ethical beliefs which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views. The fact that no religious group follows such beliefs will not determine whether it is a religious belief, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has stated that even “idiosyncratic beliefs can be sincerely held and religious.”
Case in point
An Ohio federal court recently refused to dismiss a worker’s claim that she was discriminated against when she was terminated because of her views as a vegan (Chenzira v. Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center). The employee was fired after refusing to get a company-required flu vaccination. She indicated that veganism prevented her from ingesting any animal or animal by-products (flu vaccines sometimes contain egg protein).
The employer argued that the employee’s veganism was a dietary preference that did not rise to the level of a religion under Title VII. However, the court ruled that an individual can subscribe to veganism “with a sincerity equating to that of religious views.”
Is it a moral or ethical belief?
As this case moves forward, the employer may be able to argue that it would not have been reasonable to accommodate the employee’s refusal of the vaccine, depending on the risk the employee would pose to patients.
In this case, the employee seems to have a relatively strong case that her veganism is sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views. However, there may be situations in which a vegan employee’s dietary preferences are not based on moral or ethical beliefs and therefore would not require an accommodation.
For instance, some individuals practice veganism (or observe other dietary limitations) for health reasons. Others may simply because they prefer certain foods.
Though an employer might find itself toeing a fine line, it won’t typically need to accommodate an employee whose vegetarianism or veganism was not founded in a belief that eating animals or animal by-products is immoral or unethical.
Is the belief sincerely held?
Beliefs must also be sincerely held, so if an employee who claims to be vegan is regularly observed consuming animal products, an employer may also be able to deny an accommodation. Of course, employers also need to be aware that even a recently adopted belief could find protection under Title VII.
Not all beliefs will constitute a religion under Title VII, but it’s not just traditional, organized and commonly recognized religions that will qualify. A “religion” might be something that an employer has never heard of, that only a handful of people believe in, or that seems unreasonable to others.
The key to remember is this: Even less traditionally recognized practices could qualify as religious beliefs under Title VII. Employers should know to recognize any moral or ethical beliefs that are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views.