Vegan Leaders' legal and political experts discuss the significance and effectiveness of the Ontario Human Rights Commission ruling. By Darina Bockman, with opinions from Michael Colbruno, Alan Nemeth, Van Richards and Clifton Roberts. This post was originally published in the Animal Charity Evaluators' blog on March 8, 2016.
Vegan employees can endure serious and frequent hardship in a corporate workplace. We are still expected to attend company functions held at steakhouses. We have to endure coworkers’ jokes and “this-chicken-is-so-tasty” remarks with a professional smile on our face. We are frowned upon for acting “fussy” when work requirements present a conflict with our values. And it can be especially frustrating to see vegan beliefs perceived as a foolish counter-culture rather than the sensible, responsible way of living that it is. The thought of “Doesn’t the vegan lifestyle deserve protection, at least as much as religious rights?” must have occurred to many, especially as the vegan movement gained momentum in the recent years. Indeed, several US court cases explored this issue in the past.
The recent ruling by Toronto’s Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) spurred considerable excitement in the global vegan community as a potential first step of victory against vegan workplace discrimination. In the ruling, Canada’s Human Rights Code expanded its definition of “creed” to include so-called ‘non-religious’ beliefs such as, potentially, ethical veganism. Is this truly a cause for celebration? Four experts from legal, compliance, employee benefit, and political strategy fields discuss the implications of the ruling.
Does this mean vegans are now a protected group in the Canadian workplace?
Alan Nemeth:Not exactly. Keep in mind that the OHRC did not recognize ethical veganism as a protected right. What they did was to reconsider the meaning of the word "creed." The OHR Code provides, among other things, that citizens are treated equally irrespective of their creeds and that its citizens are protected in the areas of housing, services, employment, contracts, unions and professional associations.
According to the Code, the following characteristics are considered when determining whether a belief system qualifies as a creed: a) Is it a sincerely, freely, and deeply held belief? b) Is it integrally linked to a person’s identity, self-definition, and fulfillment? c) Is it a particular and comprehensive, overarching system of belief that governs one’s conduct and practices? d) Does it address ultimate questions of human existence, including ideas about life, purpose, death, and the existence or non-existence of a Creator and/or a higher or different order of existence? e) Does it have some "nexus" or connection to an organization or community that professes a shared system of belief? So, while it is possible to make an argument that ethical veganism might be protected as a creed under the Code, there has been no such determination at this point.
Is this still a cause for celebration in the vegan community?
Van Richards:I believe yes. Canadians are taking a pragmatic approach to respecting individuals’ rights. The branch of their government that has taken on this challenge is the Ontario Human Rights Commission, which appears to be similar to the Justice Department in the United States. The OHRC’s approach encourages Canadians to respect other people’s values by broadening the understanding of an individual's creed. Their approach is that if their legal system can recognize the significance of a person's right to worship whatever they believe essential, then they should acknowledge other beliefs that people hold just as important. And what could be more fundamental and important to some people than what they eat?
Even though this is a change in one providence of a country, talking about it broadens peoples’ awareness everywhere. If a person holds a deep conviction to eating only a plant-based diet, that is their creed. Respect of that belief does not require other people to change the way that they eat. It is only asking for understanding that eating a plant-based diet is something that some people hold close for personal health, religious or ethical reasons. As Ben Kingsley eloquently stated in the movie “Gandhi,” “you’ll find there is room for us all.”
Clifton Roberts:Possibly. Although the Toronto outcome is a very positive step in favor of Canadians who are committed to a vegan lifestyle, metrics measuring the effectiveness of this ruling should be closely monitored. Because there is now both a procedural and substantive component to accommodate creed rights, the stage is set for continued conversation about how the creed is both interpreted and accommodated. The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) agrees in saying that “the Commission will continue to refine its legal analysis based on legal developments and ongoing research and discussion.”
Can something similar follow in the US? What would be involved?
Alan Nemeth:There have been a few US court cases that explored whether ethical veganism can be protected in the same manner as religious beliefs, with varying results. In a 2002 case, a California appellate court ruled against a vegan hospital employee who faced the withdrawal of an employment offer for refusing an egg-based mumps vaccine, by saying that veganism was not a religious creed, but rather a personal philosophy. In 2013, a case involving a vegan woman in Ohio, who was fired from a hospital for her refusal to take an egg-based flu vaccine, was allowed to go forward when a US District court found that the plaintiff "could subscribe to veganism with a sincerity equating that of traditional religious views." (The case settled, and the terms of the settlement were not divulged.) In a 2015 case, a vegan Messianic Jew serving a life sentence for a triple murder received a $20,000 settlement from the State of Michigan after stating that his rights were violated when he was denied vegan meals for two years.
As more cases are filed, the possibility exists for courts to broadly establish a precedent for the protection of ethical veganism in the US It is also possible that communities across the US could enact legislation providing for such protection. I suspect such legislation would be accomplished on a more local level, versus a state or national level. In a progressive local community, for example, it would be easier to gather the support and votes necessary to pass a local ordinance protecting the rights of ethical vegans or promoting a plant-based diet.
At a corporate level, more and more companies are adopting sustainability and health policies. Providing vegan options for employees directly impacts the various sustainability and health policies in effect throughout the corporate world.
Is this an effective institutional path to achieve the vegan movement’s goals?
Michael Colbruno:My thought is that demanding the inclusion of vegans under the definition of creed isn't the most effective tactical approach. I commend the activists in Ontario and support their goal. However the “creed” definition debate contradicts the inclusive coalition style of governing that is endemic to most Canadians. Instead, the focus should be on building a greater coalition around meat-free environments with vegans’ numerous natural allies.
The natural coalition is a huge untapped opportunity. Consider all those who don't eat meat for ethical reasons, health reasons, environmental concerns, Dharmic Law or other spiritual and principled reasons. Can you imagine the power of a coalition of Hindus who don't eat beef, Muslims and Jews who don't eat pork, Buddhists who are strict vegetarians, Jains who are strict vegans, environmentalists and global warming experts, local food movement advocates, health experts and animal ethicists? The vegan movement will grow in strength as it joins with other communities in our fight for a healthier planet, healthier bodies and a more moral and ethical view of how we treat other living beings.
The “creed” debate can create unnecessary resistance and perpetuate the "Us vs. Them" mythology. On the contrary, a coalition approach would demonstrate we're part of a broader movement of environmental justice, social justice, ethics and belief-based freedom.
Clifton Roberts:As a 2016 Humane Party Presidential Candidate, the major difference I see between the “creed” discussions in Canada and current US efforts regarding veganism is that of focus. While political organizations like the Humane Party focuses on the rights of non-human animals (victims), the creed referenced above shifts the center of the conversation from non-human animals to humans. Moreover, the OHRC states that “creed” is not defined in the Code, nor has it been clearly defined in the case law. Conversely, efforts in the US have commenced to propose constitutional amendments that protect the rights of non-human animals, thereby promoting an organic, non-human animal-centric observance of veganism.
Darina Bockman is a Sr. Finance Director at a global Fortune 500 company, and a founder of Vegan Leaders, a global network of influential Fortune 500 and corporate world vegans.
Michael Colbruno is a long-term veteran of public affairs, media, government relations, legislation and economic strategy, currently serving an Oakland Port Commissioner and partner in the Milo Group of California.
Alan Nemeth is an attorney, law professor and founder of the Vegan Trade Council, the first official trade association for the vegan industry.
Van Richards is an employee benefit consultant, financial advisor and a health/life/retirement blogger based in Houston, TX.
Clifton Roberts is a Sr. Manager, Ethics & Legal Compliance at a Fortune 500 company and US Presidential Candidate, The Humane Party.