We’re pretty far down the rabbit hole with religious discrimination cases. Since Title VII was enacted in 1964, courts have been asked to find sincerely held religious beliefs in everything from the KKK, to veganism to a guy that liked to eat Kozy Kitten People cat food. (Swartzentruber v. Gunite Corp.) (Chenzira v. Cincinnati Children’s Hospital) (Brown v. Pena). But most recently, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York held that a team building tool called “Onionhead” was a religion for purposes of Title VII. (EEOC v. United Health Programs of America). Given the ruling, now seems like as good a time as any to brush up on religious discrimination laws in the workplace.
Here are the basics: Title VII prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of religion. You can’t treat applicants or employees unfavorably in any aspect of employment because they either practice or are associated with an individual of a particular religion. You can’t make or allow frequent offensive remarks about a person’s beliefs and you can’t segregate them because of actual or feared customer preference.
To the extent you are aware of their beliefs or practices, you have to reasonably accommodate them unless doing so would cause more than a minimal burden on your business. Most commonly, accommodations include schedule changes for religious observances and religiously motivated dress or grooming practices.
Now, here’s where it can get hairy; Title VII doesn’t limit religion to the generally recognized organized faiths or even to observances that are theistic in nature. The law includes non-theistic “moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong,” even if those beliefs are new, uncommon, illogical to others, or only believed by one individual. If the belief is “religious” within the meaning of the law, and if the employee’s belief is sincerely held, the employer cannot discriminate and must accommodate those beliefs if necessary. Importantly, Title VII also prohibits “reverse discrimination” of employer imposed mainstream or fringe beliefs on employees. This is how Onionhead became a religion.
In an effort to combat deterioration of corporate culture, United Health implemented Onionhead, a conflict resolution character/program designed to “transform negative thoughts and behaviors into positive” ones. Onionhead was a fictitious onion with human facial features, arms and legs described as an “incredibly pure, wise and adorable character who…wants everyone to know how they feel and what to do with those feelings.” He was also praised for performing “miracles.”
Employees described Onionhead as a system of religious beliefs and practices and said that they were told to burn candles and incense to cleanse the workplace and were required to engage in chanting and prayer at Onionhead-related meetings. Ex-employees-turned plaintiffs claimed that they were terminated for rejecting Onionhead beliefs and that employees who participated in Onionhead activities were treated more favorably. The court concluded that Onionhead was a religion for purposes of Title VII as a matter of law.
Here’s the takeaway: Courts generally resolve doubts about particular beliefs in favor of finding that they are religious. If an employee asks you for a religious accommodation, do what you can to make it happen within reason. From a cost-benefit perspective, any potential inconvenience will likely be far outweighed by the cost of litigating a religious discrimination claim. And if it’s your religion, you can certainly express it in company materials or activities, but avoid pushing it on your employees and don’t take adverse action against those who don’t share your beliefs.