While most people would not see it that way, a Federal court ruling may make vegan lifestyles a protected class.
The fallout may not be immediate but it does raise concerns for HR Leaders.
In a new column for Workforce Management magazine’s online edition, LeClairRyan attorney Brian S. Inamine explores the potential fallout from a court ruling that one lifestyle choice in particular—veganism—might become a protected religious practice in the workplace.
“If federal courts did expand their definition of protected religious practice in the workplace, this would lead to a quandary for many employers. After all, state and federal laws on the subject can be substantially different,” writes the veteran employment attorney, who is based in the national law firm’s Los Angeles office.
Posted on May 2, the column—“‘Gaining My Religion’: U.S. Courts Could Give Lifestyle Choices Saintly Status’”—begins by describing the controversial case of a former employee at a Cincinnati children’s hospital (Chenzira v. Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, S.D. Ohio No. 1:11-CV-00917, Dec. 27, 2012). An avowed vegan, the plaintiff objected to an employer-mandated flu shot because she believed it would be wrong to benefit from a vaccine cultivated from chicken eggs. The hospital subsequently fired her in December 2010, and she sued. In response to a motion to dismiss the case, the U.S. District Court issued a preliminary ruling that veganism may constitute a religion or protected religious practice under federal law. “The assertion could have a broad impact if allowed to stand,” Inamine writes. “It could therefore end up in the U.S. Court of Appeals.”
Could other ideological frameworks be afforded similar deference? And if so, Inamine asks, how might this affect the playbook for HR? The attorney notes that the federal definition of religion has a subjective component, but that the law in California, for one, requires objective signs of traditional faith such as sacred books, symbols, services and sacraments. In California and other states, Inamine notes, employees can look to either federal or state law for the definition of their rights. “Thus a California employer would have to carefully consider the federal position as well,” Inamine writes.
Regardless, the broader issue—how to handle deeply felt beliefs that do not necessarily qualify as ancient creeds—seems here to stay, he notes. “In 2013 it is clear that, culturally, the U.S. is moving toward greater sensitivity,” Inamine writes. “Even in the absence of laws codifying sensitive behavior, employers ought to consider embracing policies and procedures that offer reasonable accommodation for peoples’ deeply held beliefs—religious or otherwise.”
The attorney cites several examples of situations in which employers might be forced to decide whether to accommodate the deeply felt, if not specifically religious, beliefs of employees. Twenty years ago, few employers would have tolerated the headaches created by such employee peccadillos. But today, Inamine concludes, flexibility and tolerance on such matters might be the most prudent course: “Such flexibility can pay dividends—in the form of higher morale (just look at Google Inc.’s high marks for this kind of thing) and general avoidance of unnecessary embarrassments (‘ACME Employees Demand Tofu in Cafeteria Protest’), which can spread quickly in the age of Facebook and Twitter.”
The full article is available at: http://www.workforce.com/article/20130502/NEWS02/130509994/-gaining-my-religion-8217-u-s-courts-could-give-lifestyle-choices.