Defining the concept of a “Religion” isn’t always easy. Very often, it’s a subjective exercise, very much in the eye of the beholder. As a Civil Rights Attorney, one of the types of cases we handle involves protecting faithful workers and students from bias based attacks or discrimination in public life, in schools and on the job. For me, the law guides me in effectuating that protection and guides me in understanding what a “Religion” is. That said, the law isn’t perfect, and sometimes, it wrestles with truly interesting questions.
If we took most of the circles, places, monoliths and houses of worship in the United States and put them all on one long street, we would have very little difficulty in understanding most of what we see as “Religion.” We’d pass the Catholic Church, as well as the other Christian denominations (the Mormon Tabernacle, Presbyterian Church, the Calvinist Church, etc.). We would walk past the Jewish Synagogue, the Muslim Mosque, the Buddhist and Hindu Temples. As we’d get further down the street, we would see less well known, but in the year 2013, still understood and widely accepted, “places” of worship. We’d pass nature circles, voodoo and Shinto shrines, Native American sweat lodges, and any other number of places of spirituality.
At some point, however, we’d get to a point on the street where it became very hard to distinguish religion from philosophy. In fact, as a non-believer myself, I see no difference between religion and philosophy, but people who truly believe certainly see that difference. What happens, however, when a philosophy becomes a religion?
The Courts have had to wrestle with this issue in understanding how and when to “protect” sincerely held “religious” belief under our anti-discrimination laws.
In a recent case out of Ohio, a Federal District Court has held that “veganism” – the practice of eating no products which are derived from or come from animals – can be a religious belief system. In the case of Chenzira v. Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, an employee had been asking for years – and getting – the “accommodation” for her seriously held religious belief, that she not take certain vaccines. While certain vaccines certainly carry metal risks that are more and more often a matter of public debate, what is less well known about many vaccines is that they use animal products as part of the delivery system. The Plaintiff in this case deeply held a very sincere belief that veganism was “biblical” in origin and was akin to a religion for her.
Yet she did not go to a “vegan” church, she didn’t pray about veganism specifically, and she didn’t do the other things that people commonly associate with a particular belief system. At the same time, she made a very strong case that her veganism was “biblical” and ultimately, the Court found that “conceivably,” veganism could be a religious belief system.
So I’m not making any value judgments about this, how could I, when I’m not myself a believer and therefore place all faiths on equal footing? Also, I’m not a vegan, but I understand respect the commitment it takes to live that way. In a lot of ways, especially as a non-believer, I see many people who have “philosophies” living in a more committed way than many people who claim more conventional religion. A vegan doesn’t just go to church once a week or on holidays. A vegan has to make practical, real life arrangements every day to make sure that they have a sustainable, nutritious diet that doesn’t include animal products. They have to do this when nearly everything that’s processed y the food industry contains animal products such as gelatin, etc. Being a vegan is not easy.
At the same time, regardless of whether or not you can extract support for veganism from the Bible, is veganism a “religion?” It contemplates no deity, in and of itself. It requires no services, no house of worship, no “religious rites” (other than the eating of course) and it doesn’t have any of the other “trappings” we normally associate with religion. So this all then begs the question, which not only concerns itself with philosophy-cum-religion, but religion-cum-spirituality (generically).
The fact that Chenzira found support for veganism in the Bible isn’t really that much of a help. Look hard enough and long enough and you can find support for almost anything in the Bible. You can find support for throwing rocks at people who do bad things, keeping slaves, poking people’s eyes out, etc. The people who argue that the Bible is metaphor may outnumber – at least for now – the people who believe that the Bible is literal truth, but you get my point. If you want to build a new religion that will have instant credulity, apparently, you need to look no further than a holy book, from which you can then “cherry pick” certain ideas.
Again, I’m not making a value judgment. I’m not denigrating the Plaintiff in this case or the Court’s decision. I merely take note of it. Right now, I have no vegan clients clamoring for protection and I don’t suspect that this issue is going to become a big one in a New Jersey Court anytime soon. At the same time, however, I can see other cases based upon a refusal to take vaccines being predicated on this one. I can see people formulating religions on their own, or adhering to philosophical systems that haven’t been traditionally recognized as religion and then requiring particular concessions by dint of adherence to those philosophies. It is going to make us all think.
When I was a kid, the point about how you define a religion vs. a cult, and how attempting to draw a distinction is really just patent nonsense, was epitomized by the “cult of the flying spaghetti monster.” The flying spaghetti monster which reputedly made the universe was just as verifiably the source of all creation as the God of the Bible. Obviously, the point of the sarcasm was to point out that one person’s faith is another person’s nonsense and one person’s nonsense is another person’s cult.
This is such an interesting case, on a lot of levels, at least for me, both as the person I am as an Employment Civil Rights Attorney. We’re going to see what happens in the future, but in the meanwhile, I continue to believe in the only Church that has ever made sense to me: the church of reason, science, and most importantly, the law.