Veganism = Religion?


Spencer Lo

When one considers the idea of ‘veganism,’ the notion that it is a religion—one relevantly similar to traditional religions—may strike some not only as obviously false but also absurd. Isn’t veganism (obviously) a diet at the very least or a philosophy at best? What does it offer on the ‘big questions’ usually associated with religion, such as those pertaining to the origin of the universe, the after-life, supernatural beings, and the human soul? Most people I’m sure, including vegans, do not consider veganism to be a religion as such, even though it may be required or encouraged by certain religions.

However, as illustrated in a recent lawsuit in Ohio, it turns out that veganism could qualify as a religion under federal anti-discrimination law. Professor Sherry F. Colb explained the ongoing case in her recent piece. Sakile Chenzira, a former customer service representative at a hospital, refused a mandatory flu shot (produced in chicken eggs) because it conflicted with her convictions as an ethical vegan, which resulted in the termination of her employment. She then sued the hospital alleging that the firing constituted religious discrimination under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (“It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer…to discharge any individual…because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”). In a ruling denying the hospital’s motion to dismiss, the federal district court judge held that Chenzira’s claim may actually have merit.

The relevant definition of ‘religion’ cited in the ruling appears in the Code of Federal Regulations:

In most cases whether or not a practice or belief is religious is not at issue. However, in those cases in which the issue does exist, the Commission will define religious practices to include moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views.

Under this broad definition of religion, specifically “religious practices,” if an individual sincerely subscribed to veganism “with the strength of traditional religious views,” then veganism would qualify as a religion, thereby warranting protection from religious discrimination. The court found it plausible that Chenzira could satisfy this standard, and as Professor Colb explained, it would probably be difficult to challenge the sincerity of her veganism given her willingness to forgo a flu shot despite the repercussions (both for her employment and (potentially) to her health). Additionally, for Chenzira’s veganism to qualify as religious, it isn’t necessary—although it is helpful—that other committed vegans share her belief on whether to receive a flu shot in her situation. “The fact that no religious group espouses such beliefs or the fact that the religious group to which the individual professes to belong may not accept such belief will not determine whether the belief is a religious belief of the employee or prospective employee.” 29 C.F.R. 1605.1.

So the case for identifying veganism as a religion under federal law stands on firm ground, even though the equivalency may strike many as deeply counterintuitive. The trickier issue is whether the hospital’s refusal to grant Chenzira a religious exemption complied with the legal requirement that employers must “reasonably accommodate” “an employee’s or prospective employee’s religious observance or practice,” if doing so can be accomplished “without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.” As Professor Colb explained,

The hospital has no legitimate interest in its employees consuming a cow’s breast milk, but it certainly does have a legitimate interest in keeping the hospital influenza-free.  If accommodating Ms. Chenzira’s ethical veganism places hospital patients at a measurably increased risk of becoming ill with the flu, then the defendant may be able to fire her for refusing the vaccine, her veganism notwithstanding.

The facts as alleged appear to be in Chenzira’s favor but the ultimate outcome is too soon to tell. However, one thing seems clear: earlier I asked what veganism offers on the ‘big questions’ usually associated with religion, but the better question is—why does it have to? Why shouldn’t it deserve just as much legal protection as traditional, mainstream religious beliefs?


Related links

[1] See Mariann Sullivan’s commentary on this case as well.

[2] As reported in the NYT, the FDA recently approved an eggless flu vaccine.

[3] Back in 2002, a California court reached the opposite conclusion on whether veganism could qualify as a religion; read the full opinion here.

[4] Philosopher and legal scholar Brian Leiter contends in his recent book “Why Tolerate Religion?” that “all claims of conscience—religious and non-religious—deserve toleration,” that “there’s nothing special about religion that gives special moral or legal weight to the demands it places on the consciences of believers.”

7 Responses

  1. Veganism certainly is a set of moral and ethical beliefs that are held as strongly (if not more so) than those who claim religion as a position on certain issues. Also, I think this is the reason why so many prisoners can’t be denied their preference of foods – For some it’s Halal or Kosher and for some it’s the mandate of plant based foods… Surely this falls within religious accommodations. (?)

    Even further down the line of events – If this case does hold veganism as a religion – Will that open the door for other challenges? Will it earn vegan organizations and donations tax-exempt status? Can I sue McDeath and Burger Kill because they offend my beliefs? The precedent it would set might just be what many of us have just been legally waiting for.

  2. So I can be an atheist, and due to my being vegan, religious at the same time?
    Well of course!

  3. Thank you for this fascinating piece.

    The definition of religion in the Code of Fed Regulations strikes me as being astonishingly enlightened and ethically mandatory. While living in a secular state, religionists demand that special respect be accorded to the tenets of their faith. To the secular state, those tenets appear profane. The expectation that ‘sacred’ beliefs receive heightened respect can therefore not be based on their inherent properties but must rest instead on the attitudes of the those who hold them. Those religious attitudes are likewise profane, ie not elevated by what the state must regard as their profane content. Thus, in a secular context, the only distinguishing feature of a religious attitude is the ‘strength’ with which it is held. It follows that if a profane-religious belief is to be given a certain protection on the grounds that it is held strongly, the same protection must be extended to a profane-nonrelgious beliefs espoused with comparable intensity.

    So much for the exigencies of jurisprudence (and for a whole paragraph given over to reinventing the wheel). On a moral plane, it has to be said that embracing an ostensibly ethical principle on religious grounds doesn’t constitute ethical behavior. A religiously motivated act may conform to defensible moral principles, but the ipsedixitism of the motivation so vitiates the act that it becomes distinctly sub-ethical. Following a moral principle that one can defend in profane terms seems a minimum requirement for one to speak of morality at all. This option is open to religionists and atheists alike. By comparison, it is paltry to follow a moral injunction because it’s viewed as a sacred dictate, whether grounded in holy texts, or ossified traditions, or the stupendous revelations vouchsafed to one’s numinous ‘inner light’. All of which is to say that ‘the gods’ shouldn’t meddle with morality. When they intrude, they are either the superfluous ornament to which the Euthyphro argument reduced them long ago, or, if seen as determinatve, an insuperable obstacle to the emergence of moral agency.

  4. Veganism certainly is held with religious zeal by some. But then again, just about anything can be held with such zeal. I’ve seen football fans, for example, who were religious in their devotion to their favorite team or teams.

    Provoked, even if veganism is granted religious status, I doubt you could sue McDonald’s and Burger King, any more than a Muslim, Mormon or Baha’i could sue Budweiser and Jim Beam, a puritanistic evangelical could sue the porn industry, or a Quaker could sue the military or makers of violent video games.

    In America, people are free to hold their beliefs, but not to shove them down other’s throats by way of litigation.

  5. Well just like religious beliefs there are no limitations… Of course one could sue anyone they chose to. Whether they win or not is another issue. But it sure would be one more annoyance to have to defend against.

  6. You are correct. Anybody may sue over anything they wish.

  7. […] If that seems ridiculous this story may shed some light… […]

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