Title VII protects employees from discrimination based on their religion (or lack of religious belief). A U.S. District court recently clarified that for the purposes of discrimination, a belief system called “Onionhead” is a religion. The defendant in the case is a small company that decided its corporate culture was deteriorating. The company hired a relative of the CEO to assist with morale and she brought Onionhead, a program she had developed, to the workplace. The company asserted that Onionhead is a conflict resolution tool. The plaintiffs asserted that it is a system of religious beliefs and practices. There were a series of Onionhead workshops, prayers, and meetings in the workplace, which the defendant said were voluntary but plaintiffs characterized as mandatory. Some plaintiffs described being told not to use overhead lighting "to prevent demons from entering the workplace through the lights." Plaintiffs also cited many other instances where spiritual language was used in Onionhead training. Plaintiffs contended that they were fired for either rejecting Onionhead beliefs or for having their own, non-Onionhead religious beliefs. The court found that the Onionhead set of beliefs did constitute a religion, based on a two-factors analysis: (1) whether the beliefs are sincerely held and (2) whether they are, in the believer’s own scheme of things, religious. The court stated that as a matter of law, the Onionhead beliefs are religious. On the issue of sincerity, the court found that there was a factual dispute and that a reasonable factfinder could find that the beliefs were sincerely held. For background on this case, see the EEOC’s new release: https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/newsroom/release/6-11-14.cfm
There have been similar cases in the past in this same vein. For example, in one case, the Eighth Circuit upheld a jury verdict that an employer that used Mind Body Energy (MBE) training sessions had discriminated against an employee on the basis of religion. The employer, a home builder and seller, required employees to participate in MBE sessions to "cleanse negative energy." The sessions included reading Hindu and Buddhist literature and affirming the belief in past lives. The employee complained that the sessions conflicts with his religious beliefs and he declined to participate in them. He was subsequently terminated. The Eighth Circuit noted that although there was some conflicting testimony as to the reasons for the employee’s termination, the fact that the employer kept attendance records for the sessions and the fact that the sessions were reasonably perceived by employees as required, was sufficient basis for a jury to find in the employee’s favor. Ollis v. HearthStone Homes, Inc., 495 F.3d 570 (8th Cir. 2007).
As these cases show, employers must take care to screen any training programs and accommodate any employees who give notice that these programs are inconsistent with the employees’ religious beliefs, whether or not the employer believes there is a religious basis for the employee’s objection.