Many of you who read the headline about “Onionhead” being considered a religion in the context of a discrimination case may have guffawed or shaken your head in disbelief. The 102-page opinion by U.S. District Court Judge Matsumoto in New York is thought-provoking at the very least. It also provides a primer on the concept of religion in the workplace and illustrates how even “fringe” beliefs can impact your business.
Onionhead as a religion
First, this case did not involve a claim by an employee whose Onionhead beliefs were not accommodated by an employer. To the contrary, this case involved claims by employees of reverse religious discrimination and hostile environment because the employer imposed the Onionhead beliefs on them. The EEOC moved for summary judgment on the discrete issue of whether Onionhead was a religion, and the district court concluded that Onionhead is a religion for purposes of Title VII.
In an effort to combat a deterioration of corporate culture, the CEO and COO of United Health hired the CEO’s aunt, Denali Jordan, to provide assistance. Jordan had developed a program called Onionhead or Harnessing Happiness. The defendants described Onionhead as a “multi-purpose conflict resolution tool.” The EEOC and ex-employees who intervened in the lawsuit described it as a system of religious beliefs and practices. There is no question that Onionhead was implemented in the defendants’ workplace through Jordan, who was called a “spiritual advisor” by defendants’ managers and was paid $330,000 annually for her work.
Onionhead documents describe Onionhead in religious and spiritual language. For example, Onionhead was described as being designed to “transform negative thoughts and behaviors into positive thoughts and behaviors . . . Choice, not chance, determines human destiny, and only moral code determines the state of Heaven on Earth.” Onionhead documents stated, “Keys and codes have been part of a Divine Plan from the beginning of time. . . . It was, and still is, a way to integrate our heavenly nature into our human nature.” Onionhead materials often included images of an onion with human facial features, arms and legs. In emails, the Onionhead was praised for the “miracles that our little guy has performed,” and statements made that “God is pleased with our perseverance.”
Onionhead-related workshops, prayers and meetings were effectively mandatory. Employees were required to attend on-on-one meetings with Jordan. During the workshops and one-on-one meetings with her, employees were requested to share personal information about themselves. They were told to burn candles and incense to cleanse the workplace, directed not to use overhead lighting in order to prevent demons from entering the workplace, and required to engage in chanting and prayer in the workplace.
Each plaintiff contended she was terminated either because she rejected Onionhead beliefs or because of her own non-Onionhead beliefs. The plaintiffs also asserted that employees who participated in Onionhead activities or adhered to Onionhead beliefs were treated better than others. They also claimed their environment was hostile.
A case of reverse religious discrimination
Title VII prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of religion. It also protects against requirements of religious conformity and, as such, protects those who refuse to hold, as well as those who hold, specific religious beliefs. Religious discrimination based on an employer’s preference for a particular religious group is considered reverse religious discrimination.
Title VII does not define “religion,” and there are obvious difficulties associated with determining whether a particular practice or belief is religious, particularly when courts evaluate non-traditional or fringe beliefs. As a result, most courts evaluate two factors: 1) whether the beliefs are sincerely held; and 2) whether the beliefs are, in the believer’s own scheme of things, religious. Courts ask whether the belief system involves ultimate concerns – is it more than intellectual? It doesn’t matter whether the beliefs are acceptable, logical, consistent or comprehensible to others – they are still entitled to protection. At least one circuit court has reminded us that unorthodox beliefs forbidden elsewhere have consistently found tolerance and acceptance on our shores.
Using this rubric, the district court found that Onionhead is a religion for purposes of Title VII. The actions of defendants in bringing Jordan and the Onionhead/Harnessing Happiness beliefs, practices and materials into the workplace established a sincere belief in Jordan’s teachings. The court examined the teaching documents of Onionhead and determined that statements indicated the religiosity of Onionhead, such as “We enter and leave this world with only our souls, therefore, we must learn to live THROUGH our souls, and “When we ‘opt’ to view things from a place of possibilities, we are truly showing our commitment to the Universal Plan.” Additionally, the plaintiffs described Jordan and others repeatedly referencing God and other spiritual matters in the workplace, often in a manner directly connected to Onionhead. Jordan, referring to the employees, stated, “God loves us all” and spoke about “demons and angels.” Most of the plaintiffs described being told to pray in the workplace. The district court had little trouble concluding that Onionhead is more than intellectual and found it to be a religion as a matter of law.
Practical tips for employers
As a practical matter, most employers will never deal with a believer in Onionhead. When a question of religious accommodation is raised, most employers will be considering an accommodation of a more traditional belief. A duty of accommodation is owed unless such an accommodation would create an undue hardship on an employer’s business.
But a harder question is this: Does an employer’s own practice implicate a religious concern? While an employer certainly has the right to express it is “faith-based” in company materials or statements on its website and has the right to hold employer-sponsored prayers in the workplace, extra care should be taken to avoid pressuring employees into participating in these activities. Employers should also take care that their hiring practices or application policies are neutral when it comes to religion. Diversity in the workplace is not limited to appearance; it extends to inner beliefs as well.
EEOC v. United Health Programs of America, Inc., et al., 14-CV-3673 (E.D. N.Y., Sept. 30, 2016)