Why would an employer force its employees to tell each other “I love you” or require employees to “thank God for their employment”?
According to a lawsuit filed by the EEOC in New York federal court, the owners of United Health Programs of America and Cost Containment Group subscribe to the belief system of “Harnessing Happiness,” more commonly known as “Onionhead” for the character that represents the system’s tenets. The Onionhead belief system is based on, among other things, the notion that love is what is most important and apparently the employer wanted its employees to also feel that love and share it with each other.
We know we can part the sea and make one fish into five thousand
This was one of many religious tenets of the Onionhead system alleged by the EEOC, along with practices the owners required employees to participate in, such as burning incense to remove “bad energy,” using dim lighting in their offices because “demons came through the overhead lights,” and keeping “Universal Truth Cards” next to their computers so they could contemplate the messages on the cards throughout the day.
The suit also alleges that employees were required to read spiritual texts, join prayer circles, participate in religious and spiritual discussions at staff meetings, and attend one-on-one personal coaching sessions with the Onionhead founder named “Denali,” who was the aunt of the company’s owner. Three employees in the suit claim that the employer discriminated against them based on religion, demoted and then fired them for refusing to participate in the Onionhead practices. Employees who opposed the practices were terminated for not being a “team player.” The employer denies that it discriminated against the employees and the lawsuit (now dubbed the “I love you suit”) will likely be contentious and heavily litigated.
You may be scratching your head wondering how the EEOC even decided to sue a company based on a religion that is, well, not even a real religion (after all, the Onionhead’s motto is “peel it – feel it – heal it”). The fact that Onionhead is not a true religion does not mean the end of the lawsuit. Under Title VII, religion and religious practices are defined broadly to include “moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views.” Harnessing Happiness may very well fit within that broad definition.
Employers must reasonably accommodate an employee’s sincerely held religious belief. We must now consider whether employers can require employees to participate in non-denominational “spiritual” activities as a condition of employment.