Veganism as a religion?

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Could your next request for religious accommodation be based on a strong belief in Veganism, or a faith in tarot cards? It sounds like a joke, but they’re both real examples, and the law in Canada is yet to be truly tested.

A recent case in Ohio shows just how far some cases can go. A customer service worker in a hospital was fired for refusing a compulsory flu shot. She claimed the shot, which was incubated in chicken eggs, violated her vegan diet and further asserted that her veganism is a moral and ethical belief held with the same strength and sincerity as religious views.

The hospital had accommodated her request in the past, but provided the court with evidence of the risk of an un-vaccinated employer interacting with patients and visitors.

Could such a case come up in Canada, and what would the outcome be? Similar cases have been brought, but the decisions are far from decisive, according to Filion Wakely Thorup Angeletti lawyer Brian MacDonald.

“The Tribunal seems to have gone out of its way to not address non-mainstream religion when it comes up,” he said. Ontario has seen a similar case to the Ohio scenario when a vegetarian tried to argue it was a creed, and another case based on a belief in tarot cards was brought in 2009. In both cases the courts dismissed them without discussing whether the belief was a religion.

The Canadian test requires “a sincerely held belief with a nexus to religion” and the courts found both plaintiffs did not have a sincerely held belief, so did not have to consider whether there was a nexus to religion.

“It’s most often applied when dealing with conventional religions, so that part of the test is often taken for granted. But as society moves away from traditional religion, what constitutes a religion?” MacDonald said. “Vegetarianism on its own may not have a nexus with religion, but vegetarianism tied in with Buddhism definitely would.”

He suggested vegetarianism and veganism may have more in common with political belief than religion or an ideology, which is specifically not protected in Ontario. However, there are other provinces that protect political belief as a ground of discrimination, and vegetarianism could be more successful in one of those provinces.

One reason the issue has not been truly answered is that the problem rarely arises. Vegan and vegetarian needs are usually easy to accommodate, so employers feel no need to question or challenge the request. Less traditional religions have few concrete rules to interfere with work. As MacDonald said: “It’s hard to find a Wiccan who can’t work Sundays.”

The hospital scenario currently being debated in Ohio would likely be a case of undue hardship.

“Let’s say for the sake of argument it’s a religious belief,” MacDonald said. “[In the hospital] it can’t be accommodated because to do so would be undue hardship for the employer because it’s putting it in a position of putting the public at risk. In another situation, where undue hardship isn’t a factor, it’s harder to judge, but I would probably advise an employer that they don’t have to accommodate vegetarianism in the absence of any clear nexus to religion.”

However, if the individual claimed it was based on a lesser known or newer religion it would come down to whether it was a religion, so an employer would have to be willing to take some risks to challenge it in court.

  • Ruben Benmergui on 2013-04-08 12:02:20 PM

    An interesting article and on point in many aspects. However when I read the comment “It’s hard to find a Wiccan who can’t work Sundays.”, it reminded me of the Humber College arbitration in Toronto many years ago where a "Warlock" of the Wiccan faith was denied religious observance leave (He won).

    There is also the case of the 407 Corporation in Toronto which administers the toll highway. In that case a number of employees refused to use the biometric hand-print access system because they would then be subjected, in accordance with the Bible, to the "mark of the beast". They also won their arbitration case.

  • An Expat on 2013-04-08 1:01:59 PM

    There is going to come a time in the not too distant future where private companies will require prospective employees to sign away these silly "Human Rights" in return for well paying jobs living in private compounds.

    The ones that want to fight for their "rights" can work for the government in some dead end job where they will be paid with food stamps - because that will be all the government will have left and live in government ghettos.

    This is getting just silly. Anything can be defined by religion - even someone's right to conceal carry.

  • Janet K. on 2013-04-09 10:08:01 AM

    Actually, Expat, if you read the article it says it's probably not a religion - and in Canada carrying concealed definitely isn't. Yes, there are grey areas but I would much rather live somewhere where people care about each other and ensure rights are protected than on some kind of compound where no one is looked after. I think most people agree, or there would be a mass exodus to a place with fewer requirements for protecting rights.

  • An Expat on 2013-04-09 10:56:47 AM

    Janet - what about of the right of freedom to do what you wish when you wish if it does not interfere with anyone else's same/similar rights?

    As an employer, I should have the right to hire whom I want when I want. Certainly, the employee always has the upper hand in that they can quit of they don't like the job or the way they are treated - correct?

    You sound like a socialist. You are dreaming when you say you "would much rather live somewhere where people care about each other". Do you honestly expect that caring to be efficiently delivered by some government program?

    Charity begins in the home. And most formal charities are just businesses with management expense ratios in the 80% and above. I will gladly give aid to someone in need. However, I rail against the government taking away my work product to give to someone I do not consider worthy - by my standard. And that is my perogative!

    In my many years of experience, this type of article implying such rights as veganism is a religion is a trial balloon. How long before it is entrenched as a right as interpreted by some senile old idiot in the Supreme Court of Canada?

  • Andrew on 2013-11-19 6:58:44 PM

    Good grief Expat, you won't let Janet get away with anything! No, No No. Oh, and that slippery slope... look out, Expat!

    One day vegetarians will be in the majority and then Ho, Ho, Ho, Vegetarians will rule the earth! And, we will ban all consumption of meat, maybe even dairy products if you meat eaters aren't behaving yourselves. Oh, how power hungry we Veggies are, Ha, Ha, Ha, Ha. Socialism has nothing on Vegetarianism. Be afraid, be very afraid!

    Basically, this is a non-issue and I think that the grown-ups can sort it out.

  • An Expat on 2013-11-26 8:43:17 AM

    Andrew, the pretext of the article was a discussion on wether personal beliefs such as Veganism should be protected under labour laws.

    My counter was/is that, sure believe what you wish in your own home, just don't expect legislated workplace accommodation to work for you in the long run. Substitute, veganism or any other ism if you like. Result is the same. The employee can quit any time. No need to legislate.

    I had a hipstir quit last winter because he thought he should not be expected to show up for work - "you mean like...every day? That's not fair!" He was unemployed for a year before we gave him a chance and he still is to this day.

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