Company Coerced Participation in Religious Activities and Fired Employees Who Opposed Them, Federal Agency Charges
NEW YORK - A Syosset, N.Y.-based health network violated federal law when it forced employees to take part in religious activities in the workplace and fired employees who opposed such activities, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) charged in a lawsuit announced today. Such alleged practices violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on religion.
According to the EEOC's suit, United Health Programs of America, Inc., and its parent company, Cost Containment Group, Inc., which provide customer service on behalf of various insurance providers, coerced employees to participate in ongoing religious activities since 2007. These activities included group prayers, candle burning, and discussions of spiritual texts. The religious practices are part of a belief system that the defendants' family member created, called "Onionhead." Employees were told wear Onionhead buttons, pull Onionhead cards to place near their work stations and keep only dim lighting in the workplace. None of these practices was work-related. When employees opposed taking part in these religious activities or did not participate fully, they were terminated.
Such alleged conduct violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The EEOC filed suit in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York (Civil Action No. 14-cv-3673) after first attempting to reach a pre-litigation settlement through its conciliation process.
"While religious or spiritual practices may indeed provide comfort and community to many people, it is critical to be aware that federal law prohibits employers from coercing employees to take part in them," said EEOC senior trial attorney Sunu P. Chandy.
Robert D. Rose, regional attorney of EEOC's New York District Office, added, "Individuals are free to practice religion or not in line with their own personal beliefs. Employers are not permitted to dictate this area of workers' lives. Workplace pressure to conform to the employers' spiritual or religious practices violates federal employment law."
Preserving access to the legal system and preventing harassment through systemic enforcement and targeted outreach are two of six national priorities identified by the EEOC's Strategic Enforcement Plan. The EEOC enforces federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination. Further information about the EEOC is available on its website at www.eeoc.gov.