Quirky Question #210, Employee Meals – Vegan Beliefs as a Religion

Question:

We subsidize a different meal in our employee cafeteria each week.  For example, last week hamburgers were only $2.00 instead of $5.00.  Usually we subsidize meat dishes.  A vegan employee has protested we do not similarly subsidize vegan dishes and has stated that our failure to do so constitutes religious discrimination.  This can’t be correct – right?

Answer:  By   Gabrielle Wirth

Gabrielle Wirth

Gabrielle Wirth

First, a little background.   According to the EEOC, religious discrimination claims are the third fastest growing type of claim filed with the EEOC, behind only disability based claims and sexual harassment claims.  The law protects not only persons who belong to traditional organized religions such as Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism, but also non-traditional religions. “Religion” includes “all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief” and religious practices include “all moral or ethical beliefs about what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional views.”

You can see where the argument is going.  There is no definitive answer from the courts as of now.  In 2002, a California court rejected the argument that veganism was a moral or ethical belief which is sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views under state law.  (Friedman v Southern California Permanente Medical Group).  In contrast, recently an Ohio federal court concluded it was plausible that an employee’s veganism constituted a “moral and ethical belief . . . sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views.” The Ohio court refused to dismiss a lawsuit by a hospital worker who claimed that her termination for refusal to have a mandatory flu vaccination because she was a vegan (flu vaccines contain egg – an animal by-product) constituted religious discrimination. (Chenzira v. Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center).

The EEOC has also taken the position that a vegan bus driver who refused to distribute hamburgers coupons as part of a promotional campaign was discriminated against on the basis of his religion because the bus driver’s vegan beliefs were not accommodated.  If Ohio’s and the EEOC’s positions prevail and veganism is a religious practice, then federal law requires employers “to reasonably accommodate” an employees’ religious observance or practice if it can do so “without undue hardship on the conduct of the employees business.”

While not every request by a vegan need be accommodated, the request here to have a subsidized vegan alternative probably does not create an undue hardship.  As with many employment issues, perhaps common sense provides a safe legally compliant answer.  According to a 2008 national survey by Harris Interactive, 91 percent of employers “believed they could reduce their health care costs by influencing employees to adopt healthier lifestyles”.  For this reason employer wellness programs are increasingly common.  Subsidizing the salad bar (with beans and nuts for protein and healthy fats) can be part of your company’s wellness program and provide an accommodation.  Also, asking employees to contribute suggestions for healthy and vegan options can boost morale.  The bottom line is that this request is one that can be granted at minimal cost and seems to make sense even if the law does not ultimately require that veganism be treated as a religious belief.

Gabrielle Wirth

About Gabrielle Wirth

Employers turn to Gabrielle for guidance on how they can comply with the technical employment laws in California, Montana and nationwide while meeting their business needs. Her successful trial experience......

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