Legal

Hold the Onion(head): What Is a ‘Religion’ Under Title VII?

By Jon Hyman

Jun. 16, 2014

Have you heard the one about the company that fired employees who refused to worship an onion? This is not the start of a joke, but a real, live lawsuit filed by the EEOC.

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.”

Onionhead is this incredibly pure, wise and adorable character who teaches us how to name it – claim it – tame it – aim it. Onion spelled backwards is ‘no-i-no’. 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. 

His motto is: peel it – feel it – heal it

I’m not making this up. This comes right from the website of the Harnessing Happiness Foundation, which is a legitimate 501c3 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.”

According to the New York Daily News, Denali Jordon, whom the EEOC’s lawsuit identifies as the group’s “spiritual leader,” 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 or not Onionhead is a bona fide “religion.” According to the regulations interpreting Title VII’s religious discrimination provisions:

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.

We know that forcing employees to participate in religious practices at work is a no-no. If “Onionhead” is a religion, than the EEOC will likely have an easy go of it in court. Should we take Ms. Jordon at her word that Onionhead is not a religious practice? According to Title VII’s regulations, the answer is no. 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.

As for me, I’m requesting no onions on my salad at lunch today (just in case).

(Hat tip: Business Insurance / Judy Greenwald)

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

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