Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Court Holds Employer’s “Conflict Resolution Tool” Qualifies as a Religion for Purposes of Title VII

Faced with a deteriorating corporate culture, a small wholesale company in New York implemented “Onionhead,” later known as “Harnessing Happiness,” in the work place.  The employer described Onionhead as a “multi-purpose conflict resolution tool” to help employees develop better problem-solving and communication skills. 
A number of employees disagreed with the employer’s characterization of Onionhead as an improvement tool, and believed that the management-requested exchanges of “I Love You” to colleagues, along with the chants and prayers, and work place discussions, e-mails, and mandatory meetings referencing God, spirituality, souls, demons, Satan, divine destinies, purity, blessings, and miracles, among other things, smacked of a religion in which they felt they were being forced to participate.

The employer allegedly fired several employees who refused to participate in Onionhead, resulting in a lawsuit filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).  See EEOC v. United Health Programs of America and Cost Containment Group, Inc., No. 14-cv-3673, In the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, filed on June 11, 2014.  On behalf of the employees, the EEOC pursued claims for reverse religious discrimination, hostile work environment premised on reverse religious discrimination, disparate treatment, failure to accommodate, and retaliation. 
The basis for a reverse religious discrimination claim, which is far less common than a religious discrimination claim, is that the employer subjected the employee to discrimination by imposing the employer’s religious practices and beliefs on the employee.

The EEOC moved for partial summary judgment on the issue of whether Onionhead is a religion for purposes of Title VII, and the employer moved for summary judgment on all claims.  In a recent decision spanning 102 pages, the Court found that Onionhead is a religion, and denied summary judgment for the employer on the reverse religious discrimination claims.
Acknowledging that there is no consensus on how to define religion for purposes of employment discrimination cases, the Court sought guidance from First Amendment cases, rejected a more narrow definition of "religion" applied by the Third Circuit, and determined that an “expansive conception” of the term “religious belief” is appropriate.  Applying its broader definition, the Court concluded that Onionhead qualifies as a religion. 
Evidence persuasive to the Court included Onionhead documents referencing, among other things, “God,” the “Garden of Eden,” “Universal Plan,” “the Creator,” a “Divine Plan,” “demons and angels,” and the “soul.”  According to the Court, the Onionhead system of beliefs and practices is “more than intellectual,” and involves the kinds of ultimate concerns signifying religiosity. 
In denying summary judgment for the employer on the reverse religious discrimination claims, the Court struggled with the issue of whether an employer’s beliefs must be “sincerely held” in order to qualify as religious for purposes of a reverse religious discrimination claim under Title VII, noting that in a typical Title VII case, the burden would be on the plaintiff to establish that her beliefs are sincerely held.   Placing the same burden on a plaintiff to prove that her employer’s religious beliefs are sincerely held “could erect an unnecessarily high barrier to relief” for plaintiffs pursuing reverse religious discrimination claims when the employer’s purported religion is nontraditional and the employer denies that its beliefs and practices are religious.
The decision reminds employers that there is a point where a management philosophy, tool or practice can become a religion, and that reverse religious discrimination claims, while rare, do exist.