Three years ago, in December 2010, when Sakile Chenzira refused to get a flu shot, she was fired from her job at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. The hospital said that although she worked in the customer service department – not in direct contact with patients – she still represented a health risk.
Chenzira filed suit in federal court, claiming religious discrimination. She noted that flu vaccines are produced in chicken eggs, and that, as an ethical vegan, she avoids all animal products. And therefore, since being a vegan is her religion, she could not accept the vaccine.
The hospital promptly filed a motion to dismiss the case. What did the court say?
Remarkably, perhaps, it denied the motion, ruling that veganism may qualify for the same protection as any other sincerely held religious belief. (Three years later, the hospital and Chenzira settled the case privately.)
Other courts have taken a different view. In 2002, an appeals court in Los Angeles ruled that Jerold Friedman couldn't claim religious discrimination for being turned down for a job as a computer programmer at a Kaiser pharmacy warehouse after refusing a vaccination against mumps. The three-judge panel wrote that a religious creed must address "fundamental and ultimate questions having to do with deep and imponderable matters" and that veganism is "a moral and secular, rather than religious, philosophy,"
Was this court truly saying that a religion is more about what you believe than what you practice? Does that mean it counts as my religion if I say that as a Scientologist, I believe that the galactic overlord Xenu brought billions of people to Earth 75 million years ago, and that their souls have left implants in our minds that need to be removed by the "church"? But if, on the other hand, I say my life is dedicated to the sanctity of life and protecting all living beings from cruelty, this doesn't qualify as a "deep and imponderable matter" and it doesn't count as a religion? Any "sincere and meaningful" belief that "occupies a place in the life of its possessor parallel to that filled by the orthodox belief in God of one who clearly qualifies for the exemption."
In 1965, the Supreme Court took a different view. In a case related to a conscientious objector being drafted into military service, the court ruled that a person's religious belief can indeed be interpreted to include any "sincere and meaningful" belief that "occupies a place in the life of its possessor parallel to that filled by the orthodox belief in God of one who clearly qualifies for the exemption."
In those terms, it would seem that a conscientious rejection of foods and other products that involve cruelty to animals should also be considered a religious belief.
This is not to suggest that ethical vegans should get together and set up the Church of Veganism. But it's troubling that while you can get special exemptions for your sincere belief in a virgin birth, a talking snake, or your divine right to the conquest of other people, having an equally sincere belief in the sanctity of life remains suspect.
And for us vegans, that continues to be something we deal with every day.
Example: If I'm an observant Jew or Muslim who's invited out to dinner by friends of a different faith or practice, they'll most likely not only be careful not to put ham on my plate, but also to avoid those foods themselves. It's a matter of respect.
But if I'm just an ethical vegan and I go to dinner with these same folks, they probably won't think twice about ordering steaks and fish and eggs and ice cream. And if they invite me for Christmas, they'll probably put a giant ham in the middle of the table without even stopping to consider my views about the life the poor pig endured at a factory farm, confined to a cage in which she couldn't even lie down or turn around.
If I have dinner with "vegetarians" who know I avoid dairy products, they'll be considerate enough to offer me a non-dairy dessert. But they'll routinely still serve themselves ice cream, even though they know I'm troubled that dairy products involve a lifetime of cruelty. (The cows are forced to give birth, over and over again, only to have their calves taken from them so the milk can be sold to humans.) And the fact that this bothers me doesn't lead my friends to skip the ice cream, even just for that one meal.
Would it make a difference if my ethical veganism were accepted by the mainstream as a religion like any other? Probably.
Horrified and guilt-stricken, she started behaving as though she'd either just swallowed poison or had committed a mortal sin.So, is it time to ask people to start relating to ethical vegans the same way they to relate to people of any other religion?
A few years ago, I'd have said no. I insisted that being a vegan had nothing to do with religion. I found it somewhat off-putting, for example, to hear about vegan groups whose members would get together for sessions where they would "confess" if they had lapsed in their commitments.
And there was the time when I was having dinner with a colleague who suddenly realized that something she'd just eaten had gelatin in it. (Gelatin comes from the bones of animals.) Horrified and guilt-stricken, she started behaving as though she'd either just swallowed poison or had committed a mortal sin.
"It's not a religion," I said to her. "We're not the Catholic Church. We're just doing the best we can not to be involved in cruelty to animals." (She wasn't convinced.)
Back then, I actively rebelled against the idea of veganism as a religion. But I've changed my mind. If you avoid animal products because you don't want to live a life that includes violence toward animals, then yes, that's part of your religion – in the truest sense of the word.
If the Supreme Court can rule, as in the 1965 case of the conscientious objector, that our commitment to avoiding animal products is as "sincere and meaningful" to us as a belief in Xenu or any other extra-terrestrial or divine being, then I'm ready to embrace that.
If you avoid animal products because you want to live in a way that avoids violence toward animals, then yes, that's part of your religion.I'm reminded, too, that the word "religion" comes from the Latin meaning to "reconnect" or "bind together." And while a religion may include some belief in a divine power, it doesn't have to. Buddhism doesn't. And most rabbis will tell you that being a practicing Jew has more to do with observing Jewish law and custom than with what you believe.
For most ethical vegans, our way of living is what "connects" us, in our daily lives, to other living beings. It makes us at very least as religious as anyone else who's guided by their traditional beliefs and practices – in many cases a lot more so.
It's also what connects us to each other – something we hold in common. It's who we are at a very basic level. When we eat with others of like mind, we share more than just a meal. It's as central to us as is the taking of communion, the Seder service, or the breaking of the fast at Ramadan.
Psychologists often point out that we humans are hardwired to seek meaning in our lives. Having a belief system and adhering to its religious codes and practices is one of the ways we do that. Many of us in the animal protection world can't accept the tenets of religions that offer no meaningful relationship to our fellow animals and the world of nature. It is precisely that relationship and what it requires of us that gives meaning to our lives.
In those terms, it is effectively our religion.
And being a vegan is an expression of that religion – just like the dietary codes and daily practices of any other religion.
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(What's your take on this? Let us know in a comment.)