Written by Don Byrd
Religious coercion in the workplace is barred as religious discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. A New York jury applying that law has awarded significant compensatory and punitive damages against United Health Programs of America for requiring employees to engage in “harnessing happiness” practices, which were deemed a religion by the judge.
The EEOC brought the suit on behalf of 10 employees, including one who was terminated for opposing the practices. In a press release, the EEOC explains the background of the case:
CCG employees were forced to engage in a variety of religious practices at work, including prayer, religious workshops, and spiritual cleansing rituals. These practices were part of a belief system called “Harnessing Happiness” or “Onionhead,” created by the aunt of CCG’s CEO’s. The judge previously ruled such practices constituted a religion, for purposes of Title VII. The aunt, employed by CCG as a consultant and fully supported by CCG’s upper management, spent substantial time in the company’s offices from 2007, implemented the religious activities at the workplace and had a role in employee hiring and firing. Nine victims said the religiously-infused atmosphere created a hostile work environment for them, and the jury unanimously agreed. The jury also found Faith Pabon was fired for opposing these practices.
The workplace is often the site of teambuilding and encouragement. However, the effort to inspire employees should not become religious exercises. The law thankfully protects employees from having to choose between having a job and engaging in religious practices that align with their conscience. The EEOC continues to hold employers accountable for this behavior. This jury verdict of $5.1 million sends a strong message.