The flu season has started out strong this year, already reaching epidemic proportions. A public health emergency has been declared in Boston as flu cases skyrocket to levels 10 times higher than the 2011-2012 season. A mere cough or sneeze from a co-worker now sends people into red-alert as they scramble for the hand-sanitizer and attempt to maintain a safe distance from the potentially flu ridden colleague. Public Health Officials recommend getting a flu vaccine in order to reduce the potential risk of contracting the virus. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), this year’s vaccine is directed at protecting individuals from what research has indicated will be the three most common strains of influenza.
Hospitals in particular have initiated stringent measures mandating that healthcare workers receive flu shots in order to ensure patient safety. But what happens when a nurse, doctor or other employee refuses to receive the vaccination based on personal or religious beliefs? The United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio recently grappled with this very issue when Plaintiff, Sakile Chenzira, was discharged in 2010 as a result of her failure to receive a mandatory flu vaccination. Defendant, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center (the Hospital), claimed that Ms. Chenzira’s simply refused because of a mere “dietary preference or social philosophy” rather than a religious beliefs that would require accommodation. Ms. Chenzira is a vegan and declined the shot on the basis of her principles as a vegan. Ms. Chenzira claimed that requiring a vaccine that was clearly against her beliefs was tantamount to religious discrimination. Specifically, Ms. Chenzira, stated “that her practice constitutes a moral and ethical belief which is sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views…” Ms. Chenzira presented the court with an essay entitled ”The Biblical Basis of Veganism” to demonstrate that her veganism was more than just a dietary preference. The Hospital on the other hand pointed to Bible verses that support their position and described the permissibility of consuming animal products.
The Court found it “plausible that Plaintiff could subscribe to veganism with a sincerity equating that of traditional religious views.” In particular Ms. Chenzira’s essay appeared very persuasive as the Court acknowledged that it served in “bolstering” its conclusion. According to the Court, the fact that others articulated a similar view reinforced Ms. Chenzira’s position. The Court’s ultimate ruling in the case could have a significant impact on what employers are required to accept as religious beliefs when confronted with an employee’s request for religious accommodations.