Don’t Tell Me You Love Me: Wait, What?! “Onionhead” is a Religion

By: Michael Giarratano

United States District Court Judge Kiyo A. Matsumoto recently decided that “Onionhead” is a religion under Title VII.[1]  Judge Matsumoto granted the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission’s (“EEOC”) motion for partial summary judgment as to the issue of whether “Onionhead” was a religion or not.[2]

The EEOC brought this case on behalf of former employees of United Health Programs of America Inc. and Cost Containment Group Inc.  These former employees claim that they were discriminated against by their employers under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.[3]  The employees were accusing the employer of firing them because they would not conform to the “Onionhead” activities.[4]  The employers argued that “Onionhead” is a multi-purpose conflict resolution tool that they use to control conflicts within the workplace.[5]  The former employees described it as a system of religious traditions and practices.[6]  The communications between the supervisors and employees consisted of emails about “[G]od, spirituality, demons, Satan, divine destinies, the Source, purity, blessings, and miracles.”[7]  Furthermore, employees were told that “they should not use overhead lighting in order to prevent demons from entering the workplace through the lights.”[8]

In its decision, the Court found that “Onionhead” is a religion under Title VII.[9]  When making this decision, the court evaluated whether the beliefs are sincerely held and whether they are in the believers own scheme of religion.[10]  In addressing the first prong of sincerity, the Court found that the CEO and upper management had sincere beliefs, stating: a reasonable jury could find that by inviting Jordan into the workplace, paying her to meet and conduct workshops, authorizing her to speak to employees about matters related to their personal lives, disseminating Onionhead/Harnessing Happiness material and directing employees to attend group and individual meetings with Jordan, Hodes and his upper management held.[11]

The Court heavily relied upon the e-mails presented to the Court when they addressed the second prong of their religious nature of beliefs.[12]  Specifically, the Court stated, “[t]he above-described e-mails reflect references in the specific context of discussions about Onionhead – to God, spirituality, demons, Satan, divine destinies, miracles, higher guidance teachings, and grail.”[13]  Also, there was an “Onionhead” dictionary that made references to divinity, spirituality, souls and heaven.[14]

This ruling will have to make employers pause because it really shows how “religion” has a very expansive meaning.[15]  The EEOC and attorneys handling Title VII discrimination cases will see their caseloads increase after this ruling.  I believe that it will not be a surprise to see Title VII discrimination cases based on religion be brought up since this ruling has expanded what it takes to be considered a religion under Title VII.

[1] Matthew Bultman, ‘Onionhead’ Is A Religion, Judge Rules in EEOC Bias Suit, Law360 (Oct. 3, 2016, 4:30 PM), https://www.law360.com/articles/847549?sidebar=true.

[2] Gerald L. Mattman, Jr. & Alex W. Karasik, Now Something Know As “Onionhead” Is A “Religion” For Which The EEOC Can Bring A Religious Discrimination Suit, Seyfarth Shaw LLP: Workplace Class Action Blog (Oct. 7, 2016), http://www.workplaceclassaction.com/2016/10/now-something-known-as-onionhead-is-a-religion-for-which-the-eeoc-can-bring-a-religious-discrimination-suit/.

[3] EEOC v. United Health Programs of America, Inc. and Cost Containment Group Inc., No. 14-CV-03673 (E.D.N.Y. Sept. 30, 2016).

[4] Id.

[5] See Mattman & Karasik, supra note 2.

[6] Id.

[7] EEOC v. United Health Programs of America, Inc. and Cost Containment Group Inc., No. 14-CV-03673 (E.D.N.Y. Sept. 30, 2016).

[8] Id. at 11-12.

[9] Id. at 43.

[10] Id. at 23.

[11] Id. at 35-36.

[12] Id. at 32-33.

[13] Id. at 36.

[14] Id. at 37.

[15] See Mattman & Karasik, supra note 2.

 

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