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Is It Religious Discrimination if Employees Are Made to Say "I Love You"?


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 religious discrimination?

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.
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