Sometimes the hot water that employees and employers get themselves into makes you scratch your head and think “what were they thinking?”
Earlier this week, a New York jury awarded a group of employees $5.1 million in a religious discrimination case that was a real head-scratcher from a business point of view.
In EEOC v. United Health Programs of America, Inc., the defendant company, a health network, is owned/operated by individuals who subscribe to a religious belief system referred to as “Onionhead”. The Onionhead religion was created by an aunt of the company’s owners. It’s not a typical mainstream religion. The owners made the employees participate in Onionhead practices at work including: participating in group prayer; candle burning; discussions of spiritual texts; forcing employees to tell one another “I love you”; dimming lights at work to prevent demons from coming through overhead lights; keeping and referring to Onionhead message cards at the employees’ desks.
As one can easily imagine, this wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea. The company discharged at least one employee who did not fully commit to the Onionhead practices or opposed them altogether. Other employees quit or claimed the existence of a hostile work environment because of the religious practices forced on them.
The jury found the company had violated Title VII by coercing the employees to engage in religious practices at work, by creating a hostile work environment and by firing an employee for refusing to participate in religious activities.
While employers should accommodate all sincerely held religious beliefs, and not take it upon themselves to decide whether a belief is so outlandish that it doesn’t deserve accommodation, the reverse is just as true. Employers must be conscious of not forcing their own religious beliefs on employees by avoiding favoring one set of religious beliefs over others, by advocating for one religion over another, or by refusing to acknowledge and accommodate religious beliefs that may conflict with those of owners, managers, administrators or supervisors.