Have a general question about employment law? Want to share a story? I welcome all comments and questions. I can't give legal advice here about specific situations but will be glad to discuss general issues and try to point you in the right direction. If you need legal advice, contact an employment lawyer in your state. Remember, anything you post here will be seen publicly, and I will comment publicly on it. It will not be confidential. Govern yourself accordingly. If you want to communicate with me confidentially as Donna Ballman, Florida lawyer rather than as Donna Ballman, blogger, my firm's website is here.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Weird Or Not, Beliefs Are Protected Religion

A recent case where a vegan claimed she was protected from religious discrimination has caused some wailing and gnashing of teeth on the management side of my profession. The court said this about her claims:

[I]t is plausible that Plaintiff could subscribe to veganism with a sincerity equating that of traditional religious views.... 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.

I, on the other hand, was not surprised. Indeed, I predicted this in my book, Stand Up For Yourself Without Getting Fired:

Sincerely held beliefs
: You don’t need to be part of an organized religion to be protected against religious discrimination. Atheists are protected. So are “moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views.” It doesn’t matter that the beliefs are illogical or even that they aren’t held by many people. For instance, a person who practices veganism for moral reasons may be protected against religious discrimination, where a person who practices veganism for health or environmental reasons may not be protected.

It doesn't matter if you agree with the religious belief or think it's weird. Whether you dislike dreadlocks, you must respect a Rastafarian's right to wear them. Do you think a Jehovah's Witness ought to be a good sport and participate in birthday celebrations? Stop pushing. You can't do it. Think a Sikh's long hair should be cut? It doesn't matter what you think. It matters what the person who holds the belief thinks. If their belief is sincerely held, you must respect it in the workplace. No mocking or harassment allowed.

What about atheists? They don't have a religion, do they? Wrong. Atheists are one of the most maligned groups in our society, right up there with the overweight. Politicians openly blame them for tragedies that have nothing to do with them. Some openly call them evil or immoral. There are even state laws that openly discriminate against atheists. However, their sincerely held beliefs are protected under Title VII's religious discrimination provisions. That means an atheist must be excused from prayer services and other religious displays at work. You can't refuse to hire them because you assume all atheists are unethical (as my daughter's teacher announced in class the other day) or because they don't attend your church.

If you think about it, even mainstream religions have some practices that may seem weird to outsiders. Catholics engage in ritual cannibalism when they do communion. The Bible that most Christian and Jewish believers follow says offenses like adultery, not honoring the sabbath, and being a bad son are subject to mandatory death penalty.

So who's to say what's weird or whose beliefs are silly? To an atheist, a religious practice might be superstition. To others, it might be blasphemy. To some, it may be their most sincerely held belief.

Hindu, Muslim, Scientologist, Seventh-Day Adventist, Pagan, Wiccan, Satanist, and believers in Greek Mythology are all protected under Title VII.

So let's stop judging each other's beliefs and get back to work.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Hi Donna:

    What do you think of this case where the court stated veganism is NOT a religion?


    Will this question keep being decided on a case-by-case basis?

    1. Friedman v. Southern California Permanente Medical Group was decided under California law,not Title VII. I think the courts will definitely have different takes on the issue. But we're seeing more broad protections for religion of all kinds, so I suspect that ethically-motivated vegans will ultimately end up with some protection. Health-motivated vegans will be out of luck.

  3. Hi, Nice post thanks for sharing.

    Traditional Homes


I appreciate your comments and general questions but this isn't the place to ask confidential legal questions. If you need an employee-side employment lawyer, try http://exchange.nela.org/findalawyer to locate one in your state.