Is vegetarianism a religious belief?

Title VII protects employees from discrimination based on religion, but not every strongly held belief is religious.


I have been a vegetarian for ten years. My employer pays for lunch to be delivered to our office once a week. We always get lunch from the local hamburger joint, which most employees love. But there's almost nothing for me to eat. I've asked my manager whether we can get lunch from a place that has a wider variety of choices, but he said it's majority rule, and the other employees want hamburgers. Do I have any rights here? I don't eat meat because I believe it is ethically and morally wrong to do so. Isn't that kind of like a religious belief, which my employer has to accommodate?


You've put your finger on an age-old question: What is religion? For purposes of Title VII, the primary federal law that outlaws employment discrimination, religion includes traditional organized religions (such as Judaism or Islam), as well as small sects and beliefs that only a few people hold. A religion need not be popular nor recognized to qualify.

Religious beliefs may take many forms, but they must include something beyond the personal. A religious belief is one that is sincere and meaningful, and occupies a place in the believer parallel to that held by "God" in traditional religions. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the government agency that enforces Title VII, has tried to distinguish between personal and religious beliefs this way: Religious beliefs typically concern ultimate ideas about "life, purpose, and death," including moral or ethical beliefs about right and wrong that are held with the strength of traditional religious beliefs. On the other hand, economic or political beliefs or social theories, even though strongly held and important to the believer, are not religious in nature.

Vegetarianism is a belief that may or may not be religious. The key is the vegetarian's motivation. If you are a member of a religious group that promotes vegetarianism as a Biblical teaching, for example, it would clearly be a religious belief. If you are a vegetarian because your doctor told you to stop eating meat for health reasons, that would clearly not be religious.

Your situation falls somewhere in between. Based on your question, it doesn't sound like you are a vegetarian because you believe a higher power requires or desires it. On the other hand, you have a strong moral and ethical belief that eating animals is wrong, which doesn't sound entirely unlike a religious belief. For the most part, however, vegetarians who can't point to a religious context for their choice haven't had much luck arguing that they are facing discrimination.

This may be one of those situations in which you are better off not "making a federal case" of it, as the saying goes. Why not ask your manager -- or his manager, if he isn't responsive -- whether you can pick up your lunch elsewhere that day, on the company's dime? After all, the point of buying lunch for employees is to boost morale and provide a perk. Chances are good that, once the company learns you can't eat the food they are providing, they'll be willing to give you an alternative.

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