"The Church of the Holy Vegan?" Philadelphia Daily News
- Should we be exempt from certain things because of our deeply-held vegan
Karen Dawn <karendawn@...> wrote:
From: "Karen Dawn"
Date: Fri, 8 Aug 2003 08:49:29 -0700
Subject: The Church of the Holy Vegan? Philadelphia Daily News.
(The Philadelphia Daily News takes letters at: Views@... )
Philadelphia Daily News
August 8, 2003 Friday
EDITORIAL OPINION; Pg. 17
The Church of the Holy Vegan?
By VANCE LEHMKUHL
LAST MONTH, a U.S. district judge turned down a request by three vegan
prisoners at Rikers Island in New York to get vegan meals in prison. For
now the three, charged with property damage and trespass at a
demonstration against animal testing, are subsisting on peanut butter,
crackers and potato chips.
In turning them down, Judge Shira A. Scheindlin said she did not question
the sincerity of the inmates' religious beliefs, and that raises the
question: Is veganism a religion? More exactly, does it deserve First
Amendment protection similar to other religions under U.S. law?
First, it's important to note that although the word "vegan" was coined
only 60 years ago, the basic concept is among humanity's oldest spiritual
traditions. The Hindu principle of "ahimsa" - willful non-violence -
appeared in scriptures a thousand years before Jesus. Two other ancient
religions, Buddhism and Jainism, elevated ahimsa to a central position.
It's also worth noting that this belief system is not a mere philosophy -
a way of making sense of the world intellectually - but a way of life
that affects its adherents profoundly.
Gandhi, for example, grew up in a Jain-centered area, but did not adopt
the principle of ahimsa until he became an ethical vegetarian. After
that, he frequently referenced ahimsa in religious terms: "Non-violence
is an active force of the highest order," he said. "It is soul force or
the power of Godhead within us."
We needn't look all the way to East Asia for the religious underpinnings
of veganism, though.
The Rikers prisoners, all Jewish, argued that veganism was the purest
articulation of their religious identity.
This makes sense when we consider the first mention of food in the Bible,
Genesis 1:29, where God says, "Behold, I have given you every herb
bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in
the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for
The God of the Hebrews first and foremost wanted mankind to live on
fruits and vegetables. Even Christians are finding links to veganism,
above and beyond Jesus' apparent links to the vegan Essene cult. If
nothing else, Jesus' turn-the-other-cheek, love-thy-enemy ethic is deeply
reminiscent of the precepts of ahimsa.
Reminiscence, of course, is not a legal argument: Even if vegans
consistently live in an ethical way, is that enough to qualify as a
religion? Common sense tells us that there should be some kind of deity,
some higher power involved. However, when it comes to First Amendment
protection, the Supreme Court says otherwise.
In two cases pertaining to conscientious objectors whose moral stance did
not invoke a supreme being, the court specifically addressed this wider
question: In United States vs. Seeger (1965), Justice Tom Clark wrote for
the majority that "Some believe in a purely personal God, some in a
supernatural deity; others think of religion as a way of life envisioning
as its ultimate goal the day when all men can live together in perfect
understanding and peace."
Clark cited Congress' "long-established policy of not picking and
choosing among religious beliefs." And in Welsh vs. United States (1970),
the court expanded the C.O. exemption to include "deeply held moral,
ethical, or religious beliefs whether or not the individual calls them
Vegans, who avoid any and all products of animal exploitation, including
leather, are sometimes mocked for their "inflexibility." But there's
another, more relevant, term for this: devotion.
Not all federal prisons apply the "religious dietary practices" rule
exactly the same; but it's clear that wherever kosher or halal meals are
available, so should be vegan meals for vegans. If our prison system has
any true rehabilitative goal, stopping inmates from pursuing a creed of
non-violence seems ludicrous.
Vance Lehmkuhl is the online editor of the Daily News.
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