According to the EEOC’s lawsuit, the employer coerced employees to participate in ongoing religious activities. These activities included group prayers, candle burning, and discussions of spiritual texts. The religious practices are part of a belief system called “Onionhead.” Employees were told wear Onionhead buttons, pull Onionhead cards to place near their work stations and keep only dim lighting in the workplace. None of these practices was work-related. When employees opposed taking part in these religious activities or did not participate fully, they were terminated.
The employees brought effectively two groups of claims. The first group of claims is premised on reverse religious discrimination: that the employer subjected employees to discrimination by imposing religious practices and beliefs on them. The second group of claims fall within the more traditional religious discrimination and retaliation rubric: employees asserted that they were discriminated against and retaliated against on the basis of their own religious beliefs. In a 102-page Order the Court allowed the religious discrimination lawsuit to go to trial. Equal Opp. Emp't Comm'n v. United Health Programs of Am., Inc., 213 F. Supp. 3d 377, 390 (E.D.N.Y. 2016).
Following a three-week trial, on April 25, 2018, a unanimous federal jury found that the employer violated federal law by coercing 10 employees to engage in religious practices at work and by creating a hostile work environment for nine of them. The jury also found the employer violated federal law by firing one employee, who opposed these practices.
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A small company’s CEO and COO determined that the corporate culture was deteriorating amid a difficult financial period for the company. The company used the Onionhead and Harnessing Happiness program as a multi-purpose conflict resolution tool, while some employees characterized it as a system of religious beliefs and practices.
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Some employees describe being told to burn candles and incense to “cleanse the workplace” and other claimants were told that they should not use overhead lighting “in order to prevent demons from entering the workplace through the lights.” Employees also describe instances in which they were required to engage in chanting and prayer in the workplace.
Three employees filed charges of discrimination against company with the EEOC, and the EEOC determined that the three employees (along with a “class of additional claimants,”) had been discriminated against on the basis of religion. The company refused to pay the EEOC’s settlement demand and the EEOC sued the company, claiming it violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on religion.
Ten employees claimed that they were terminated by the company either because she rejected Onionhead beliefs or because of her own non-Onionhead religious beliefs. These employees further claimed that certain other employees who participated in Onionhead activities or adhered to Onionhead beliefs were given progressive discipline when they erred instead of being terminated.
An “advisor” was brought into the company monthly to try to create camaraderie and unification in the workforce. This involved Onionhead-related workshops, prayers, and meetings implemented in the workplace which employees viewed as effectively mandatory (though the company contend that they were entirely voluntary).
The jury awarded $5.1 million in compensatory and punitive damages to the 10 individuals for whom EEOC was seeking relief.
EEOC spokespersons stated: “This verdict makes clear how federal law bars employers from imposing religion on employees in the workplace. [and] This case featured a unique type of religious discrimination, in that the employer was pushing its religion on employees. Nonetheless, Title VII prohibits religious discrimination of this sort and makes what happened … unlawful. Employees cannot be forced to participate in religious activities by their employer. [and] While religious or spiritual practices may indeed provide comfort and community to many people, it is critical to be aware that federal law prohibits employers from coercing employees to take part in them,” and “Individuals are free to practice religion or not in line with their own personal beliefs. Employers are not permitted to dictate this area of workers' lives. Workplace pressure to conform to the employers' spiritual or religious practices violates federal employment law.” The above "facts" were taken from court pleadings and the EEOC press release.
This case reminds Florida employers that the EEOC is taking religious discrimination in the workplace cases seriously. If you need any assistance in relation to analyzing handling such religious discrimination or accommodation requests, please email the Law Office of David Miklas, P.A. or call us at 1-772-465-5111 before you take that action to make sure that it is legal.
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