I Believe, I Believe! A Vegan and a Flu Shot

Posted by Molly DiBiancaOn February 5, 2013In: Discrimination, Religious (Title VII)

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Can an employee be required to get a flu shot? Employers want a healthy workforce and, presumably, employees do not want to be sick. So a flu shot seems like a good idea. And an offer of a free flu shot for employees seems like a great perk.

But the goodwill-nature of a suggestion always seems to change when a suggestion turns into a requirement. Maybe it's just the rebellious teenager in all of us that reacts negatively to being told that we must do something. Maybe we all have authority issues. I don't know what it is about being ordered to do something that seems to set off an automatic negative response.

The real trick, though, is how to respond to that negative response. Push back? Stand your ground and insist? Or give in and abandon your request? This is the question that one employer had to deal with when its employee refused to get a flu shot.

In Chenzira v. Cincinnati Children's Hospital Med. Ctr., the employer required its employees to be vaccinated for the flu. Ms. Chenzira had worked for the hospital for 10 years when she was terminated for refusing to be vaccinated. She alleged that she refused on religious and political grounds because, as a vegan, she does not ingest any animal or animal by-products.

The employer moved to dismiss the complaint on the grounds that Veganism is not a true religion but, instead, is more of a dietary preference or social philosophy. The court denied the employer's motion, finding that the plaintiff-employee may be able to establish that veganism meets the requirements of a religious belief for purposes of Title VII's anti-discrimination provisions.

It is important to note that the court did not find that Veganism is or is not a religion. Instead, it merely held that, based on the face of the complaint, it was plausible that the plaintiff would be able to show that she subscribed to Veganism with a religious-like sincerity.

Here are two points to consider from this case.

First, take a deep breath and slowly exhale. Don't overreact. When a 10-year employee refuses to get a flu shot, consider whether this is a truly terminable offense. I would suggest that, based on the facts as they are described in the court's opinion, the answer is, "no." If it's not, let it go and move on. (The same advice applies in the context of Facebook comments by employees).

Second, do not be the arbiter of morality. Do not make a decision about whether an employee holds a "true belief" with regard to their religion (e.g., "She's not a real Catholic; she never goes to mass!"). And do not make decisions about whether a particular belief qualifies as a religion, as was the case here.

Instead, consider the practical approach. If the employee had not gotten a flu shot and she got the flu, would it have been the end of the world for the employer? Probably not. Although there are plenty of times when standing on principle is the right approach. But that is not always the case. There also are plenty of times when the better approach is a practical one.

Chenzira v. Cincinnati Children's Hospital Med. Ctr., No. 11-917 (S.D. Ohio Dec. 27, 2012).

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