Employees win one of EEOC’s strangest lawsuits
One of the nation’s weirdest employment lawsuits came to a close April 25 when a federal jury in Brooklyn unanimously ruled in favor of employees at a New York insurance company who objected when they were forced to practice a religion conceived by the firm’s CEO.
The claims: A religiously motivated hostile environment and retaliation. The jury’s award: $5.1 million. The religion: Onionhead.
Yes, Onionhead. That’s the deity himself to the right.
It all started in 2007 when the CEO of United Health Programs wanted his employees to get along better. The man’s aunt had developed a conflict-resolution program for children called “Onionhead,” which she revised into training for United Health staff.
Employees were ordered to attend sessions where they learned about Onionhead’s divine plan for mankind. They were taught to create a calm, godly work environment by turning off overhead lights. This was supposed to keep demons at bay. They were instructed to foster workplace harmony with prayer and chants.
Ten employees objected, arguing that being required to work in the dark, pray, burn incense and engage in other acts violated their own religious beliefs.
After an EEOC complaint, years of litigation ensued, with United Health Programs losing every time. But faith in Onionhead was strong, so the company kept appealing.
This latest decision seems to have ended the long-running drama. As a workplace practice, Onionhead appears to be dead, any way you slice it.
Note: Title VII of the Civil Rights Act forbids coercing employees to engage in religious practices at work.