What if your employer required you and your co-workers to pray, burn candles,
and tell colleagues "I love you."? Besides the potential sexual
harassment issues that might unintentionally arise, would that constitute
Yes, according to the EEOC, in a
lawsuit filed against United Health Programs of America in Syosset, New York.
The complaint alleges that the company required employees to participate
in activities like group prayer, made them discuss personal matters with
colleagues and management, used dim lighting in the office, and forced
them to engage in other activities based a belief system called "Harnessing
Happiness," more commonly known as Onionhead, which was created by
a family member related to the company's founder. Employees were also
required to take part in Onionhead practices on a daily basis, and to
hold Onionhead-related meetings on a weekly basis.
One woman who worked for the defendants as an "Account Manager/ IT
Project Manager" objected to the Onionhead-related practices, saying
she was Catholic and didn't want to participate in the activities,
the complaint said.
At the next monthly visit of "Denali" — the aunt of the
company's owner and member of its management team who served as leader
of the Onionhead practices — the company moved her desk from an
office to an open area and told the woman her responsibilities would now
include answering phones, said the lawsuit, adding that Denali immediately
put a large Buddha statue in that office.
The worker called in sick the next day and received a call from the company's
owner at home, said the EEOC. She said she felt as if she has been embarrassed
and demoted, and the owner responded by firing her, according to the lawsuit.
Another worker who complained about the Onionhead practices had her desk
moved and her responsibilities changed and was subsequently fired, the
complaint said. Yet another employee refused to take part in some activities
during a spa weekend where employees were required to "be together
all the time, hold hands, pray and chant," and was fired soon after,
said the lawsuit.
Other individuals were also fired in retaliation for opposing Onionhead-related
activities, and others still had to quit to avoid taking part, the EEOC said.
The religious freedom of public sector and most private sector employees
is protected by a federal law called "Title VII," 42 U.S.C.
§§ 2000e, et seq. Title VII prohibits discrimination based on
race, color, sex, religion, or national origin. Title VII applies to private
employers who have fifteen or more employees on their payroll for at least
twenty weeks during a given year. Religious discrimination can take the
form of using an employee's religion as a factor in decisions to or
not to hire or to give or not give promotions, treating employees unequally
based on their religion, and harassment. Employers may also have an affirmative
duty to accommodate an employee's religious practices in the workplace,
unless the employer can show that such an accommodation would impose an
undue hardship on the employer.
An employer does not discriminate on the basis of religion by affirming
the faith of its owners in business objectives. "Title VII does not,
and could not, require individual employers to abandon their religion."
E.E.O.C. v. Townley Engineering & Mfg. Co., 859 F.2d 610, 621 (9th Cir. 1988). Employers, however, cannot give prospective
or current employees the perception that employment or advancement with
the company depends on acquiescence in the religious beliefs of the employer.
Employees cannot be required to undergo religious training, participate
in religious services or religious activities, or engage in behavior that
would violate their sincerely held religious beliefs.
If you have been subject to religious discrimination in your New York
workplace, call the attorneys as Schwartz and Perry LLP so that we can
help you enforce your rights under the law.