Hold the Onion(head)

By Jon Hyman

Aug. 6, 2014

I’ve been married 11 years. My wedding was not what you’d call traditional. I’m Jewish and my wife is Catholic, and we wanted our ceremony to blend the best of both traditions.

While my wife’s dream wedding included her dad walking her down a church aisle, we were willing to sacrifice if we could not find a priest and a rabbi who would accommodate our wishes. With nervous trepidation, we met with the priest of Colleen’s parish, who, as it turned out, was 100 percent on board with our plan. We next found a rabbi, and all of us worked together to craft the ceremony we wanted: in a church, under a chuppah, with a beautiful blend of both religions and our respective traditions and customs.

I tell this story because, recently, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a lawsuit against a company that fired employees who refused to worship the employer’s religion of choice — which happened to be the worship of an onion.

According to the EEOC, United Health Programs of America and its parent company, Cost Containment Group, required its employees to participate in “group prayers, candle burning and discussions of spiritual texts,” all as part of a “belief system” that the defendants’ family member created, called “Onionhead.” The EEOC further alleges that employees who refused to participate were fired.

What is Onionhead? According to the Harnessing Happiness Foundation, Onionhead is not a “what” but a “who.”

“He wants everyone to know how they feel and then know what to do with those feelings. He helps us direct our emotions in a truthful and compassionate way. Which in turn assists us to communicate more appropriately and peacefully. In turn, we then approach life from a place of our wellness rather than a place of our wounds.”

I’m not making this up. This comes right from the website of the Harnessing Happiness Foundation, which is a legitimate 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. It is “dedicated to emotional knowledge and intelligence, conflict resolution and life handling skills, for all ages,” which teaches the belief that “hope lies in our ability to deal with problems in a respectful, mindful and loving way.”

“Onionhead” is part of Harnessing Happiness, which uses a genderless onion “as a medium to express peeling our feelings, as a way of healing our feelings.”

For its part, the Harnessing Happiness Foundation denies that Onionhead is a religious practice.

Here’s the thing. For purposes of the EEOC’s religious discrimination lawsuit, it doesn’t matter whether Onionhead is a bona fide “religion.” According to the regulations interpreting Title VII’s religious discrimination provisions, “religious practices … include moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views.” According to the Harnessing Happiness Foundation’s website, Onionhead appears to include sincerely held moral or ethical beliefs about what is right and wrong. Thus, it appears that, even though Onionhead’s leaders deny its status as a religion, Title VII likely concludes otherwise.

What does all this mean for you? Leave religion out of the workplace. Whatever you call your deity — God, Jesus, Allah, Buddah or even Onionhead — leave it at home. The workplace and religion do not mix. An employer cannot force its employees to conform to, follow or practice the employer’s chosen religious practices and beliefs.

This case illustrates a deeper point: Employers seem to have forgotten how to accommodate. People are quick to lay blame at the feet of companies that fail to accommodate their employees’ differing religious views, or worse, force their own religious views upon their employees.

Yet, teaching how to accommodate starts at home. If children learn exclusion, how can we expect them to act any differently as adults? If nothing else, I know my kids (being raised Catholic, but with a healthy dose of Jewish tradition in the home) should not make these mistakes as they grow. We won’t let them, and, as they age, I hope they won’t want to.

Jon Hyman is a partner in the Employment & Labor practice at Wickens Herzer Panza. Contact Hyman at

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