The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has filed a lawsuit on behalf of three former employees, against a Syosset, New York company claiming that workers were forced to participate in religious activities at work and fired if they refused.
As reported by Reuters, United Health Programs of America and its parent company, Cost Containment Group, made employees pray, thank God for their jobs, and tell managers and colleagues, “I love you.” The practice followed a belief system called “Onionhead,” which was a doctrine created by the aunt of the company’s owner.
The EEOC press release says other activities “…included group prayers, candle burning, and discussions of spiritual texts… Employees were told wear Onionhead buttons, pull Onionhead cards to place near their work stations and keep only dim lighting in the workplace. None of these practices was work-related.” The EEOC noted that the company has practiced this ongoing coercion since 2007. "Individuals are free to practice religion or not in line with their own personal beliefs,” Robert D. Rose, regional attorney of EEOC's New York District Office said. “Employers are not permitted to dictate this area of workers' lives. Workplace pressure to conform to the employers' spiritual or religious practices violates federal employment law."
Reuters reports that in 2010, one employee told the management that she was Catholic and did not want to take part in the Onionhead religious practices. One month later that employee was moved from her office and “relocated to an open customer service area, while a large statue of a Buddha was placed in her former office.” After she protested, saying that the move was equivalent to a demotion, she was fired.
The lawsuit asks that fired employees get back pay with interest and receive unspecified damages. It also seeks an injunction against the company from their religious requirements. The EEOC said that efforts to negotiate a settlement with United Health Programs of America through its conciliation process were unsuccessful.
The New York Daily News reports that David Sutton, the attorney representing United Health Programs of America said, “The EEOC lawsuit is completely devoid of merit and we expect that it will be summarily dismissed.”