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New Jersey lawyer focusing on special education law and employment law

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Religious Discrimination and Veganism

When Sakile Chenzira was terminated from her employment at a hospital for refusing to be vaccinated for the flu, she filed a federal lawsuit against her employer for religious discrimination, seeking compensatory damages in the amount of $100,000 and punitive damages in the amount of $250,000, plus attorneys fees and costs.

Ms. Chenzira alleges that she is a vegan, and veganism is her “religion.”

A vegan is a person who does not ingest any animal or animal by-products. Since the flu shot is typically prepared by using chicken eggs, getting the flu shot would be contrary to Ms. Chenzira’s “religion.”

According to the complaint, Ms. Chenzira “had bona fide religious beliefs, which included the abstention from consuming animals and animal by-products. This religious conviction conflicted with the requirement that Ms. Chenzira submit to a flu vaccine.”

Ms. Chenzira’s employer filed a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss the complaint. The Court denied the motion, holding that:

Although the Code makes it clear that it is not necessary that a religious group espouse a belief before it can qualify as religious, 29 C.F.R. 1605.1, the fact here that Plaintiff is not alone in articulating her view lends credence to her position. Accordingly, at this early stage of the litigation, the Court finds it inappropriate to dismiss plaintiff’s claims for religious discrimination based on her adherence to veganism.

The court’s denial of the motion to dismiss means that the litigation will continue. If no settlement is reached, the court may decide on the merits.

My feeling is that the Court will focus on whether the hospital has a legitimate business interest in implementing the vaccination program. Like the “Costco piercing” case I discussed in another blog article, I doubt the Court will answer the question whether veganism is a religion.

Indeed, the Court noted that the hospital would need to introduce evidence that Ms. Chenzira’s termination was justified. For example, did Ms. Chenzira have any contact with hospital patients? If Ms. Chenzira did not get vaccinated, what risks might she pose to hospital patients? This is very similar to the ”Costco piercing” case, wherein the Court focused on business justifications for prohibiting facial jewelry: to maintain a clean, neat appearance among Costco employees.

This is a case worth watching, and it is going to be interesting if the court will take notice of the latest flu vaccination manufacturing techniques that don’t use eggs!

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