Diversity & Inclusion

Onionheads everywhere rejoice as NY federal court protects their ‘religion’ under Title VII

by Brent E. Siler

The title of this article isn’t a typo or a joke. It’s a literal statement of holding in a recent federal case before the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, which found that an employer’s conflict-resolution program, which its creator dubbed “Onionhead” or “Harnessing Happiness,” was in fact a religion under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Despite the outrageous-sounding nature of the case, it serves as a reminder that the bar for what constitutes a religion under Title VII is low, and employers that try to force religious belief systems on their employees face real legal risks.  Prayer Group

Sincerity of beliefs is the key

United Health Programs (UHP) became concerned about a perceived deterioration in its corporate culture and hired the CEO’s aunt, Denali Jordan, to help fix it. Jordan developed a conflict-resolution tool for children called Onionhead. She later adapted the program to help adults to improve their problem-solving and communication skills. After UHP hired her, she introduced her program, which was also called Harnessing Happiness, to its employees.

Evidence presented to the court showed that Onionhead does have some religious characteristics. For example, communications about the program involve discussions about God, divine destiny, demons, blessings, and miracles. Jordan, whom management referred to as a “spiritual adviser,” began a series of mandatory meetings with the employees involving prayer and advice about their personal lives. She also directed some employees to light candles and incense to “cleanse the workspace” and directed others to refrain from using overhead lighting to prevent demons from entering the workplace. Employees were required to say “I love you” to each other as part of the program.

Several employees filed charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleging that UHP subjected them to discrimination, retaliation, and a hostile work environment based on religion. The EEOC sued UHP on the employees’ behalf. The company asked the court to dismiss the case, but the court denied its request, allowing some of the claims to proceed to trial.

In allowing the EEOC’s claims to proceed to trial, the court first held that Onionhead is a religion. Under Title VII, almost any sincerely held moral or ethical belief system involving ultimate issues of right and wrong can constitute a religion under Title VII. Courts generally consider whether the beliefs are sincerely held and are considered religious in the believer’s own scheme of things. A belief system is “religious” if it addresses ultimate concerns that may require the believer to disregard self-interest rather than fail to adhere to its tenets.

Applying that test to the facts of this case, the court noted that Jordan and UHP management held sincere beliefs about Onionhead, noting that management brought Jordan into the workplace, authorized her to speak with employees about their personal lives, disseminated Onionhead materials, and required employees to meet with Jordan. Even though Jordan and UHP’s CEO testified that they don’t consider Onionhead a religion, the court found their beliefs are sincerely held. The court also noted that their beliefs are religious in nature because the Onionhead program references God and spiritual matters, involves prayer, and otherwise deals with “ultimate concerns.” Those facts showed that Onionhead is religious in nature.

The court also allowed the employees’ disparate treatment and hostile work environment claims to go forward to trial. Several employees who were terminated alleged that Jordan was directly involved in or influenced their terminations or resignations because they failed to adopt or comply with Onionhead. The court held they could proceed to trial on their claims that UHP subjected them to a hostile work environment based on the “consistent coercive efforts by supervisors to impose Onionhead beliefs on them.”

Gospel for employers

This case offers two important lessons for employers. First, you must be wary about limiting your consideration of religion to the most prevalent religions: Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Imagine if an employee told you that he couldn’t perform a required task because it was prohibited by “Onionhead.” You probably wouldn’t seriously consider whether he needed a religious accommodation. But Title VII was never intended to allow managers to determine what is and isn’t a legitimate religion. As you can see from this case, the courts’ primary focus is on whether the belief is sincerely held and whether it’s “religious” in the broadest sense of the word. It simply doesn’t take much for a set of beliefs to be considered “religious” under Title VII.

Second, religious employers must be careful to avoid giving employees the impression that adherence to a particular religion is required or preferred. The vast majority of managers I have encountered are religious people. Although many aren’t overtly religious in the workplace, they view their religious beliefs as motivation for their work and see their work as an area in which to engage others about their faith. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with relying on your faith to motivate your work or even discussing your faith with others, managers must remember that the very fact that they are “the boss” makes religion in the workplace a more likely source of legal liability.

The nature of the risk posed by an overtly religious manager is similar to the risk posed by a manager who romantically pursues a subordinate. Let’s say you have a manager who’s romantically interested in an employee who reports to him. Is there anything illegal about allowing him to ask her out on a date? No. Is it a good idea to allow him to pursue her? Of course it isn’t.

Why? Because the nature of the relationship between managers and their subordinates allows the manager to control the subordinate’s terms and conditions of employment, including salary, promotions, and benefits. While the manager may never allow the employee’s acceptance or rejection of his advances to color his perception of her performance, it will always be arguable whether her performance or her rejection of his romantic pursuit was his true motivation for any adverse employment actions he takes against her. The unequal nature of their relationship will always appear to give the manager’s proposal an element of coercion, even if he doesn’t intend it.

A person in a position of power over employees advocating for a particular religion in the workplace gives the same appearance of coercion. Employers that use overtly religious language in their policies or communications with employees, allow excessive religious displays, or proselytize at work run the risk of a religious discrimination claim.

Bottom line

So what do you do to avoid religious discrimination claims? There’s no easy answer or clear-cut rule for when religious discussion crosses over into religious coercion. Certainly, employees shouldn’t be required to go to mandatory religious meetings or adhere to any particular religious beliefs. And managers should be free to discuss their faith with employees, but only if an employee wants to discuss it.

However, managers should be trained to understand that their position of power over employees makes extended religious discussions or proselytization of employees inherently risky. Moreover, employees should be trained on your Brent Silercompany’s harassment policies, and they should feel comfortable complaining to HR if a manager’s religious statements make them uncomfortable. By following those steps, you can maintain the delicate balance between allowing religious expression in the workplace and prohibiting religious discrimination.

Brent E. Siler is an attorney in Butler Snow LLP‘s labor and employment practice group in the firm’s Memphis office. He may be reached at brent.siler@butlersnow.com .