Religious Discrimination in Employment Is Not Always What You Might Think

If someone asked you to explain employment discrimination due to religion (which is illegal under state and federal law), you might cite a situation where an employer learns of an employee’s religious beliefs that they find to be offensive or unreasonable. As a result, the employer takes action against the employee. It doesn’t always work that way.

A lawsuit filed by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)  against a company not far from New York City, in Syosset, earlier this month showcases a different form of religious discrimination. It’s something employers need to be aware of, especially if they want, or feel a need, to share their faith.

The EEOC claims health network United Health Programs of America, Inc., and its parent company, Cost Containment Group, Inc., violated federal law when it forced employees to take part in religious activities in the workplace. It also alleged the defendants fired employees who opposed such activities (resulting in another legal claim for retaliation). If true, these alleged acts would violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on religion and retaliation. According to the complaint, defendants provide customer service on behalf of insurance providers.

The EEOC alleges that the defendants:

  • Coerced employees to participate in ongoing religious activities since 2007.
  • This included group prayers, candle burning and discussions of spiritual texts.
  • These practices are part of a belief system that the defendants’ family member created, called “Onionhead” or “Harnessing Happiness.”
  • Employees were told to wear Onionhead buttons, pull Onionhead cards to place near their work stations and keep only dim lighting in the workplace.

The New York Daily News, citing the complaint, reports that a Cost Containment official, allegedly the leader of Onionhead practices at the company, is accused of retaliating against three employees who balked at attending one-on-one sessions to discuss “divine plans” and “moral codes.” As part of these religious practices, employees allegedly needed to say “I love you” to other employees and management.

These practices were not work-related, according to the EEOC, and when employees opposed taking part in these religious activities or did not participate fully, they were terminated.

Robert D. Rose, regional attorney of EEOC’s New York District Office, is quoted in an EEOC press release as stating, “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.”

If you own or manage a business in New York City and your religion is part of the work atmosphere, or are an employee uncomfortable with your employer’s religious practices or attempts to convert you, contact my office so we can discuss your situation and talk about what is, and is not, allowed under the law.