EEOC Alleges in Religious Discrimination Lawsuit that Employer Required Employees to Participate in Religious Activities

A Long Island company unlawfully discriminated against its employees on the basis of religion, according to a lawsuit filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). EEOC v. United Health Programs of America, et al, No. 1:14-cv-03673, complaint (E.D.N.Y., Jun. 11, 2014). The employer allegedly required employees to participate in religious activities that were not related to their employment duties, and terminated those who refused to fully participate. The EEOC is claiming violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. The case raises important questions of what constitutes “religious practices” under Title VII.

A family member of the defendant’s owner created a “belief system” called “Onionhead.” United Health, complaint at 3. UHP employees are allegedly expected to participate in daily activities related to Onionhead, such as “praying, reading spiritual texts, [and] discussing personal matters with colleagues and management.” Id. The defendant’s owner’s aunt, identified in the EEOC’s complaint as “Denali,” led the Onionhead activities and made monthly visits to the workplace, at which time employees were allegedly required to meet with her individually and participate in group sessions.

Numerous employees did not want to participate in Onionhead activities and “experienced these practices as both religious and mandatory.” Id. at 4. Two employees identified in the EEOC’s complaint, both of whom worked as managers, objected to the Onionhead activities in 2010. They were both allegedly moved from offices to “the open area on the customer service floor,” id. at 5, and their responsibilities were changed from managerial duties to answering phones. The defendants terminated both employees within days.

Another employee identified in the complaint attended a “spa weekend in Connecticut with Denali and about 20 other customer service representatives” in 2012. Id. at 6. She alleges that Denali “required that the employees be together all the time, hold hands, pray, and chant.” Id. After she declined to participate in some of the activities, she was allegedly terminated the following Monday. Other employees also allegedly faced termination for refusing to participate fully in such activities.

The lawsuit alleges that the defendants’ actions violated of Title VII. The EEOC is seeking injunctive relief, policies that protect employees from religious discrimination, and compensation for the complainants in the form of back pay and other pecuniary losses.

An important question raised by this lawsuit is whether or not Onionhead is a “religion” within the meaning of Title VII. This type of analysis usually focuses on an employee’s religious beliefs, and whether or not an employer has made reasonable accommodations. Here, the focus is on the rights of employees not to be bound by the religious beliefs of the employer. The EEOC defines “religious practices” as including “moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong,” provided they are “sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views.” 29 C.F.R. § 1605.1. Religious beliefs “need not be acceptable, logical, consistent, or comprehensible to others” to be protected by law. Thomas v. Rev. Bd. of Indiana Emp. Sec. Div., 450 U.S. 707, 714 (1981). Cases often depend on whether a religious belief is “sincerely held.” Massie v. Ikon Office Solutions, 381 F.Supp.2d 91, 100 (N.D.N.Y. 2005).

If you need to speak to an employment discrimination attorney in New Jersey or New York, please contact the Resnick Law Group online, at 973-781-1204, or at (646) 867-7997.

More Blog Posts:

Plaintiff in Employment Discrimination Lawsuit Alleges that Employer Fired Him Because of Religion, The New Jersey Employment Law Firm Blog, July 8, 2014
Employers in New Jersey and Across the U.S. May Not Engage in Religious Discrimination, The New Jersey Employment Law Firm Blog, October 31, 2013
EEOC Settlement Reminds Employers in New Jersey and Across U.S. to Refrain from Unlawful Religious Discrimination, The New Jersey Employment Law Firm Blog, August 20, 2013

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