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By: Michael M. Hill
Trouble with low morale in the workplace? Conflicts among employees? Perhaps you are considering addressing the problems by hiring an outside consultant to tweak the company’s culture? If so, you may want to tread cautiously. A company in Long Island did just that and a court upheld a religious discrimination suit.
In EEOC v. United Health Programs of America, Inc., a wholesaler of discount medical plans, Cost Containment Group, Inc. (“CCG”), found itself in a difficult financial period and determined that its corporate culture was deteriorating. In an attempt to resolve this, the CEO invited his aunt, a woman named Denali Jordon, to help turn the company’s fortunes around. Jordan is the creator of a program called “Onionhead,” which she initially developed as a tool to help children “identify, understand, and communicate emotions.” It involved cards, pins, dictionaries, workshop materials, magnets, journals, a “Declaration of Virtues of Empowerment,” and (last but not least) a cartoon anthropomorphic onion. The company described Onionhead as a “multi-purpose conflict resolution tool.”
Perhaps understandably, many employees were not too keen on taking advice from a cartoon onion. Jordan became a paid employee of the company, started hosting Onionhead workshops for employees at the office, and implemented several unconventional practices with somewhat religious overtones. For instance, employees claim they were told to burn candles and incense to “cleanse the workplace” and not to use overhead lights “in order to prevent demons from entering the workplace through the lights.” Jordan also led the employees in chanting and prayer sessions and often sent employees emails that discussed subjects such as faith, souls, angels, demons, God, Satan, the “road to Heaven,” the “Universal Plan,” and the “Divine Plan.”
This Onionhead program persisted for several years at the company, during the course of which a number of employees were terminated. However, many terminated employees filed charges of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging that Onionhead actually was a religion and that they were discriminated against either (1) for rejecting the Onionhead religious teachings, or (2) because of their own non-Onionhead religious beliefs. They also alleged that other employees who adhered to Onionhead beliefs or participated in Onionhead activities were treated more favorably, such as receiving progressive discipline instead of termination. The EEOC filed suit and moved for partial summary judgment on the issue of whether Onionhead constitutes a “religion” under federal law. The federal district court held that Onionhead is a religion as a matter of law.
What is interesting about this case, however, is not the fact that a court was willing to find a strange belief system to constitute a religion. That alone is not new, as there are a few cases where an individual had unusual beliefs and contended he suffered discrimination as a result (see, e.g., the case of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster). Rather, what is unusual is that the adherents to Onionhead are the ones contending it is not a religion. The company said it was just a “conflict resolution tool,” and Jordan, who created the Onionhead system, submitted an affidavit to the court attesting that it was not a religion. But the court held that the company was practicing religion, even if the company itself did not think that was what it was doing.
An important takeaway from the Onionhead case is that employers may want to exercise caution in how they present their corporate culture or their policies and practices. In determining whether a set of beliefs counts as “religious,” courts may use an expansive definition of “religion” and inquire not just into what the believer himself believes, but also into what other people think about the beliefs. It is a good idea for employers to review their practices and company materials, with counsel, to see if they may be construed by others as endorsing or implicating religious issues.