Court finds Onionhead a religion in reverse religious discrimination case

by McAfee & Taft
Contact

Many of you who read the headline about “Onionhead” being considered a religion in the context of a discrimination case may have guffawed or shaken your head in disbelief. The 102-page opinion by U.S. District Court Judge Matsumoto in New York is thought-provoking at the very least. It also provides a primer on the concept of religion in the workplace and illustrates how even “fringe” beliefs can impact your business.

Onionhead as a religion

First, this case did not involve a claim by an employee whose Onionhead beliefs were not accommodated by an employer. To the contrary, this case involved claims by employees of reverse religious discrimination and hostile environment because the employer imposed the Onionhead beliefs on them. The EEOC moved for summary judgment on the discrete issue of whether Onionhead was a religion, and the district court concluded that Onionhead is a religion for purposes of Title VII.

In an effort to combat a deterioration of corporate culture, the CEO and COO of United Health hired the CEO’s aunt, Denali Jordan, to provide assistance. Jordan had developed a program called Onionhead or Harnessing Happiness. The defendants described Onionhead as a “multi-purpose conflict resolution tool.” The EEOC and ex-employees who intervened in the lawsuit described it as a system of religious beliefs and practices. There is no question that Onionhead was implemented in the defendants’ workplace through Jordan, who was called a “spiritual advisor” by defendants’ managers and was paid $330,000 annually for her work.

Onionhead documents describe Onionhead in religious and spiritual language. For example, Onionhead was described as being designed to “transform negative thoughts and behaviors into positive thoughts and behaviors . . . Choice, not chance, determines human destiny, and only moral code determines the state of Heaven on Earth.” Onionhead documents stated, “Keys and codes have been part of a Divine Plan from the beginning of time. . . . It was, and still is, a way to integrate our heavenly nature into our human nature.” Onionhead materials often included images of an onion with human facial features, arms and legs. In emails, the Onionhead was praised for the “miracles that our little guy has performed,” and statements made that “God is pleased with our perseverance.”

Onionhead-related workshops, prayers and meetings were effectively mandatory. Employees were required to attend on-on-one meetings with Jordan. During the workshops and one-on-one meetings with her, employees were requested to share personal information about themselves. They were told to burn candles and incense to cleanse the workplace, directed not to use overhead lighting in order to prevent demons from entering the workplace, and required to engage in chanting and prayer in the workplace.

Each plaintiff contended she was terminated either because she rejected Onionhead beliefs or because of her own non-Onionhead beliefs. The plaintiffs also asserted that employees who participated in Onionhead activities or adhered to Onionhead beliefs were treated better than others. They also claimed their environment was hostile.

A case of reverse religious discrimination

Title VII prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of religion. It also protects against requirements of religious conformity and, as such, protects those who refuse to hold, as well as those who hold, specific religious beliefs. Religious discrimination based on an employer’s preference for a particular religious group is considered reverse religious discrimination.

Title VII does not define “religion,” and there are obvious difficulties associated with determining whether a particular practice or belief is religious, particularly when courts evaluate non-traditional or fringe beliefs. As a result, most courts evaluate two factors: 1) whether the beliefs are sincerely held; and 2) whether the beliefs are, in the believer’s own scheme of things, religious. Courts ask whether the belief system involves ultimate concerns – is it more than intellectual? It doesn’t matter whether the beliefs are acceptable, logical, consistent or comprehensible to others – they are still entitled to protection. At least one circuit court has reminded us that unorthodox beliefs forbidden elsewhere have consistently found tolerance and acceptance on our shores.

Using this rubric, the district court found that Onionhead is a religion for purposes of Title VII. The actions of defendants in bringing Jordan and the Onionhead/Harnessing Happiness beliefs, practices and materials into the workplace established a sincere belief in Jordan’s teachings. The court examined the teaching documents of Onionhead and determined that statements indicated the religiosity of Onionhead, such as “We enter and leave this world with only our souls, therefore, we must learn to live THROUGH our souls, and “When we ‘opt’ to view things from a place of possibilities, we are truly showing our commitment to the Universal Plan.” Additionally, the plaintiffs described Jordan and others repeatedly referencing God and other spiritual matters in the workplace, often in a manner directly connected to Onionhead. Jordan, referring to the employees, stated, “God loves us all” and spoke about “demons and angels.” Most of the plaintiffs described being told to pray in the workplace. The district court had little trouble concluding that Onionhead is more than intellectual and found it to be a religion as a matter of law.

Practical tips for employers

As a practical matter, most employers will never deal with a believer in Onionhead. When a question of religious accommodation is raised, most employers will be considering an accommodation of a more traditional belief. A duty of accommodation is owed unless such an accommodation would create an undue hardship on an employer’s business.

But a harder question is this: Does an employer’s own practice implicate a religious concern? While an employer certainly has the right to express it is “faith-based” in company materials or statements on its website and has the right to hold employer-sponsored prayers in the workplace, extra care should be taken to avoid pressuring employees into participating in these activities. Employers should also take care that their hiring practices or application policies are neutral when it comes to religion. Diversity in the workplace is not limited to appearance; it extends to inner beliefs as well.

EEOC v. United Health Programs of America, Inc., et al., 14-CV-3673 (E.D. N.Y., Sept. 30, 2016)

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

© McAfee & Taft | Attorney Advertising

Written by:

McAfee & Taft
Contact
more
less

McAfee & Taft on:

Readers' Choice 2017
Reporters on Deadline

"My best business intelligence, in one easy email…"

Your first step to building a free, personalized, morning email brief covering pertinent authors and topics on JD Supra:
Sign up using*

Already signed up? Log in here

*By using the service, you signify your acceptance of JD Supra's Privacy Policy.
Custom Email Digest
Privacy Policy (Updated: October 8, 2015):
hide

JD Supra provides users with access to its legal industry publishing services (the "Service") through its website (the "Website") as well as through other sources. Our policies with regard to data collection and use of personal information of users of the Service, regardless of the manner in which users access the Service, and visitors to the Website are set forth in this statement ("Policy"). By using the Service, you signify your acceptance of this Policy.

Information Collection and Use by JD Supra

JD Supra collects users' names, companies, titles, e-mail address and industry. JD Supra also tracks the pages that users visit, logs IP addresses and aggregates non-personally identifiable user data and browser type. This data is gathered using cookies and other technologies.

The information and data collected is used to authenticate users and to send notifications relating to the Service, including email alerts to which users have subscribed; to manage the Service and Website, to improve the Service and to customize the user's experience. This information is also provided to the authors of the content to give them insight into their readership and help them to improve their content, so that it is most useful for our users.

JD Supra does not sell, rent or otherwise provide your details to third parties, other than to the authors of the content on JD Supra.

If you prefer not to enable cookies, you may change your browser settings to disable cookies; however, please note that rejecting cookies while visiting the Website may result in certain parts of the Website not operating correctly or as efficiently as if cookies were allowed.

Email Choice/Opt-out

Users who opt in to receive emails may choose to no longer receive e-mail updates and newsletters by selecting the "opt-out of future email" option in the email they receive from JD Supra or in their JD Supra account management screen.

Security

JD Supra takes reasonable precautions to insure that user information is kept private. We restrict access to user information to those individuals who reasonably need access to perform their job functions, such as our third party email service, customer service personnel and technical staff. However, please note that no method of transmitting or storing data is completely secure and we cannot guarantee the security of user information. Unauthorized entry or use, hardware or software failure, and other factors may compromise the security of user information at any time.

If you have reason to believe that your interaction with us is no longer secure, you must immediately notify us of the problem by contacting us at info@jdsupra.com. In the unlikely event that we believe that the security of your user information in our possession or control may have been compromised, we may seek to notify you of that development and, if so, will endeavor to do so as promptly as practicable under the circumstances.

Sharing and Disclosure of Information JD Supra Collects

Except as otherwise described in this privacy statement, JD Supra will not disclose personal information to any third party unless we believe that disclosure is necessary to: (1) comply with applicable laws; (2) respond to governmental inquiries or requests; (3) comply with valid legal process; (4) protect the rights, privacy, safety or property of JD Supra, users of the Service, Website visitors or the public; (5) permit us to pursue available remedies or limit the damages that we may sustain; and (6) enforce our Terms & Conditions of Use.

In the event there is a change in the corporate structure of JD Supra such as, but not limited to, merger, consolidation, sale, liquidation or transfer of substantial assets, JD Supra may, in its sole discretion, transfer, sell or assign information collected on and through the Service to one or more affiliated or unaffiliated third parties.

Links to Other Websites

This Website and the Service may contain links to other websites. The operator of such other websites may collect information about you, including through cookies or other technologies. If you are using the Service through the Website and link to another site, you will leave the Website and this Policy will not apply to your use of and activity on those other sites. We encourage you to read the legal notices posted on those sites, including their privacy policies. We shall have no responsibility or liability for your visitation to, and the data collection and use practices of, such other sites. This Policy applies solely to the information collected in connection with your use of this Website and does not apply to any practices conducted offline or in connection with any other websites.

Changes in Our Privacy Policy

We reserve the right to change this Policy at any time. Please refer to the date at the top of this page to determine when this Policy was last revised. Any changes to our privacy policy will become effective upon posting of the revised policy on the Website. By continuing to use the Service or Website following such changes, you will be deemed to have agreed to such changes. If you do not agree with the terms of this Policy, as it may be amended from time to time, in whole or part, please do not continue using the Service or the Website.

Contacting JD Supra

If you have any questions about this privacy statement, the practices of this site, your dealings with this Web site, or if you would like to change any of the information you have provided to us, please contact us at: info@jdsupra.com.

- hide
*With LinkedIn, you don't need to create a separate login to manage your free JD Supra account, and we can make suggestions based on your needs and interests. We will not post anything on LinkedIn in your name. Or, sign up using your email address.