CINCINNATI (AP) -- A former longtime customer service representative at an Ohio hospital has filed a lawsuit after she was fired for refusing to get a flu shot because she is vegan.
Requiring employees to get a flu shot is standard at many hospitals because of their close contact with vulnerable patients. But some of those employees take issue with the requirement and refuse for various reasons.
That includes Sakile Chenzira (sah-KEEL'-aye CHEN'-zeer-ah), a 58-year-old Cincinnati woman who was fired from Cincinnati Children's Hospital in December 2010 for refusing to get the shot as required of all employees at the hospital, although it's unclear whether she had any direct contact with patients. Chenzira cited her veganism, whose practitioners do not consume any animal products; the flu vaccine contains a small amount of egg protein.
Chenzira filed a lawsuit against the hospital on Dec. 28, 2011, seeking a minimum of $650,000, and the case is set to go to trial before a jury in July.
In the lawsuit, Chenzira accuses the hospital of violating her civil rights and discriminating against her religion.
The hospital argues that veganism is not a religion, comparing her situation to a 1992 case involving a Ku Klux Klan member whose lawsuit over being fired for participating in a Hitler rally was thrown out by a federal judge who ruled that the KKK is political and social in nature, not religious.
"Chenzira has pled no more than a dietary preference or social philosophy for what she consumes, which is insufficient to state a claim for religious discrimination," wrote the hospital's attorney, Eugene Droder III, in his request in April to have the lawsuit thrown out.
Chenzira argued that her veganism constitutes a moral and ethical belief as strong as any religion and even cited Bible passages that she argued backed her up.
Late last month, U.S. District Judge S. Arthur Spiegel agreed to throw out one claim in Chenzira's suit, but ruled that she still can pursue her claim of religious discrimination, writing that it's plausible that Chenzira "could subscribe to veganism with a sincerity equating that of traditional religious views."
Chenzira did not immediately return a call Thursday seeking comment, but has told The Cincinnati Enquirer that being vegan guides her entire life.
"When they force you, I don't think that's fair," she said. "I just feel they should be more open to people's religious beliefs."
Droder declined to comment, citing the pending litigation, except to say that "the hospital did the right thing here."
With an earlier-than-usual flu season that has been worse than recent mild seasons, more and more hospitals have begun requiring their staffs to get the flu shot and cracking down on those who don't.
At least 20 children have died from the flu so far this year, including one in Ohio.
In the past two months, at least 15 nurses and other hospital workers in four states have been fired for refusing to get a flu shot, and several others have resigned, according to affected workers, hospital authorities and published reports.
That figure includes seven employees at IU Health Goshen Hospital in northern Indiana and a longtime critical care nurse in suburban Chicago, some of whom said they resented being required to get the shot and had rights of their own. Others refuse because of egg allergies or other medical reasons.
Some hospitals argue that health care workers have an ethical obligation to get the shot to help protect themselves, and therefore their patients, from getting the flu, although most allow for some exemptions.
The most recent federal data available shows that as of November, about 63 percent of U.S. health care workers got flu shots. That's an increase from previous years, but the government wants that figure to be at 90 percent by 2020.
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