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EEOC Sues Company for Forcing Employees to Practice “Onionhead” “Religion”

On June 11, 2014, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a complaint against United Health Programs of America, Inc., alleging that managers of the company had violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by requiring them to participate in religious practices in the workplace. The religion in question is based on the tenets of the “Harnessing Happiness Foundation,” the defining principles of which which consist of little more than a set of self-help psychology resources on a website. Those who identify with these principles, the main symbol for which is “Onionhead,” a label that refers to a “pure, wise, and adorable character” that represents the layers of human emotions that practitioners seek to understand and put to effective use. Religious concepts like God, the soul, divine love, etc. are not central parts of Onionhead doctrine; the Foundation’s materials themselves do not contain these words.

As described in the plaintiffs’ complaint, however, managers at United Health incorporated a set of practices including “praying, reading spiritual texts, discussing personal matters…, burning candles, and keeping dim lights in the workplace,…prayer circles, asking employees to thank God for their employment, and saying ‘I love you’ to management and colleagues.” Plaintiffs allege that they were required to attend Onionhead-related meetings, wear Onionhead pins, and place Onionhead-related cards next to their computer monitors. The aunt of the company’s owner, “Denali,” was the leader of these practices and was invited to visit the workplace each month. During these visits, employees were allegedly required attend one-on-one meetings with Denali and discuss literature, which they had been assigned as homework, about “divine plans,” “moral codes,” and “enlightenment.”

When one employee told her managers that she was Catholic and did not want to participate in Onionhead-related activities, and during the next visit by Denali the managers moved her out of her office to a desk in the open area of the customer service floor and changed her responsibilities to include answering phones. The managers then put a Buddha statue at the desk in her empty office. She called in sick the next day, and at that time the Defendant’s owner called her at home and told her that she should not come back to work.

Another employee expressed her desire not to participate in Onionhead-related activities and, during Denali’s next visit, was also moved out of her office to a desk in the open area of the customer service floor. Her responsibilies were also changed to include answering phones. Denali allegedly referred to “demons” in connection with the employee’s resistance to Onionhead practices. The next day, the employee called in sick with pregnancy-related complications and the Defendant’s owner called her at home and fired her via a voicemail message.

A third employee attended a “spa weekend” with other employees, during which Denali told the twenty customer service representatives that the main reason for the trip was “spiritual enlightenment.” Denali allegedly instructed the employees to join hands, pray, and chant. The employee refused to follow these instructions, and on the following Monday Denali called her into her office and fired her for “insubordination,” which the employee “understood to be a clear reference to her refusal to participate religious activities during the employees’ spa weekend.

Plaintiffs allege that other employees were similarly subjected to constructive discharge because they refused to take part in these practices.

Several articles and blogs have been published about this case, presumably because the idea of the Onionhead “religion” is novel and interesting. However, to the extent that there was religious discrimination in this case, its connection to the Harnessing Happiness Foundation is incidental. Whether the alleged actions nevertheless constitute religious discrimination remains to be decided.

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