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  • Onionhead: Do Firings Over a Non-Religious Practice Violate Title VII?

    A Syosset, New York company is being charged with violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act after employees claimed they were fired for not participating in the belief system of the employer. It appears to be a clear religious discrimination violation; however, there is a twist. The belief system that the company forced upon its employees is not Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, or any other bona fide religion, but rather, is a belief system based on a fictional onion.

    According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), United Health Programs of America, Inc., and its parent company, Cost Containment Group, “forced its employees to participate in group prayers, candle burning and spiritual-text discussions” based on a “religion,” known as “Onionhead,” created by a member of the company owner’s family. The EEOC continued, “[e]mployees were told to wear Onionhead buttons, pull Onionhead cards to place near their work stations and keep only dim lighting in the workplace. None of these practices was work-related.” Employees who opted out of participating in these practices or did not participate fully were fired, according to reports from the EEOC.

    The Harnessing Happiness Foundation, a nonprofit organization that runs the official website of Onionhead, explains that Onionhead is a fictional character who teaches followers how to channel their emotions in order to understand themselves better and resolve their problems in a more effective manner. The site states that the onion is used “as a medium to express peeling our feelings, as a way of healing our feelings.” This eccentric belief system may seem harmless, but forcing employees to comply with it may be crossing a legal line.

    Although the Harnessing Happiness Foundation does not call Onionhead a religion, the belief system’s status as an actual bona fide religion may not affect whether or not there was a Title VII violation. According to United States v. Seeger,380 U.S. 163 (1965) and Welsh v. United States,398 U.S. 333 (1970), the religious discrimination provisions under Title VII are interpreted as such:

    In most cases whether or not a practice or belief is religious is not at issue. However, in those cases in which the issue does exist, the Commission will define religious practices to include moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views.

    Thus, if the employees can prove that they were fired because of their refusal to follow the Onionhead belief system, provided it is deemed a “religion,” they may have a claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prevents employers from using religion, among other things, as a basis for firing or hiring.

    While cases over religious expression remain a legal gray area, regardless of Onionhead’s status as a religion, employers must be cognizant of the rules and practices they cause their employees to follow.

    If you or your institution has any questions or concerns regarding employment related issues, please email Cynthia A. Augello at caugello@cullenanddykman.com or call her at (516) 357-3753.

    A special thank you to Cathryn Ryan, an intern at Cullen and Dykman LLP, for her assistance with this blog post.