Many New York employers choose to implement programs designed to foster a healthier and more productive working environment. Employers must be careful not to use such programs to try and force certain spiritual beliefs or religious-style rituals on their employees. This may cross the line into unacceptable religious discrimination, especially if an employee is disciplined or terminated for failing to adopt such beliefs or rituals.
Judge Rules Spirituality Program Implemented by CEO's Aunt Constituted a “Religion”
On April 27, a federal jury in Brooklyn awarded over $5 million in damages to a group of employees who accused their employer of coercing them “to engage in religious practices at work” and subjecting them to a “hostile work environment” when they refused to comply. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces religious discrimination laws at the federal level, brought the lawsuit on behalf of the affected employees.
The employer, a wholesaler of discount medical plans, maintained an employee program known as “Onionhead.” The exact nature of this program was the subject of the EEOC's lawsuit. The employer said it was simply an attempt to create a more effective “corporate culture.” The EEOC said it was actually a religion.
In a September 2016 ruling, the federal judge presiding over the case held that applying an “expansive conception of religious belief,” which is the standard used in the Second Circuit, Onionhead qualified as a “religion for purposes of Title VII” of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The judge cited witness testimony that the developer of Onionhead, who happened to be the aunt of the employer's CEO, made repeated references “to God, spirituality, demons, Satan, divine destinies, miracles, 'higher guidance teachings,' and a grail,” in connection with the program.
More to the point, the employees testified they were “told to pray in the workplace” and participate in various “spiritual cleansing rituals.” The aunt, acting as a consultant, also participated in hiring and firing employees based on their adherence to the Onionhead system. Nine of the 10 employees who complained to the EEOC said “the religiously-infused atmosphere created a hostile work environment for them.”
Apparently, the jury agreed. The jury unanimously found that the defendants created a “hostile work environment based on religion.” The jury awarded compensatory damages for each employee of between $80,000 and $590,000, and four employees received punitive damages ranging from $160,000 to $900,000. Finally, the jury determined one employee was wrongfully terminated due to their “rejection of defendants' religious practices.” That employee received an additional $690,000 in damages, which included $250,000 in punitive damages. Altogether, the jury ordered the defendants to pay a total of $5.1 million.
Have You Been a Victim of Religious Discrimination at Work?
No employer has the right to force their religious views or practices of any employee in the workplace. If you have been fired or disciplined for religious reasons, you have certain rights under federal, state, and city laws. An experienced New York City religious discrimination lawyer can advise you of these rights and what steps you need to take. Contact the Law Offices of White, Nisar & Hilferty, LLP, if you need to speak with a lawyer today.