John M. O’Connor
John M. O’Connnor

Who knew that “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me,” the iconic rock anthem of 80’s hairband Night Ranger (YouTube video) is actually a rally song protesting religious discrimination??  On January 27, 2016, the EEOC filed a summary judgment motion in EEOC v. United Health Programs of America, No. 14-cv-3673 (E.D.N.Y. filed June 11, 2014), asking the Court to find that certain team building policies and practices implemented by the defendant employer, including a requirement that its employees tell one another “I love you,” amount to unlawful religious discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

According to the defendant employer, the policies and procedures under attack by the EEOC are not a religion, but secular self-improvement policies and corporate wellness programs intended to enhance the workplace environment.  While acknowledging that the challenged activities are part of a belief system called Harnessing Happiness, more commonly referred to as “Onionhead,” created by the aunt of the company’s owners (a spiritual advisor who is called “Denali”), the defendant employer argues that the belief system is not a religion because it is not derived from theology, contains no spiritual text, and does not recognize a supreme being. Thus, it contends that its employees required participation in various “Onionhead” activities — such as burning candles, dimming lights at work (because demons can come through overhead lights), keeping “Onionhead” cards at their workstations (to enable them to contemplate the messages on the cards throughout the day), thanking God for their employment, and saying “I love you” to colleagues and managers — are lawful workplace policies implemented to enhance the work environment.

The EEOC disagrees.  In its summary judgment motion, the Commission argues that the “Onionhead” practices imposed on United Health Programs’ employees are “replete with religion,” in that the “Onionhead” cards speak of “universal truths” and contain iconography such as flaming chalices, halos and wings.  The EEOC alleges that United Health Programs violated Title VII’s religious discrimination prohibition when it terminated the employment of three employees who opted not to participate in the required “Onionhead” rituals.

The fact that “Onionhead” is not a true religion is not fatal to the claims as, under Title VII, religion and religious practices are defined broadly to include “moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views.” Thus, the Court may conclude that “Onionhead” fits within this broad definition and that United Health Programs violated Title VII by terminating the employment of the three employees who chose not to participate.  To avoid getting into a pickle in the first place, employers should be wary of compelling their employees to participate in non-denominational “spiritual” activities as a condition of employment.