Written by Don Byrd

The last post covered an employment discrimination verdict in a case brought by the EEOC on behalf of workers who objected to mandatory activities in a program called “harnessing happiness.” A jury awarded $5.1 million in damages for the religious coercion. Your first question after hearing that story might be the same as mine: when does a motivational curriculum become a religious exercise?

In this case, before a jury could do its job, a judge determined that the beliefs and exercises in question qualify as a religious under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion in the workplace.The Supreme Court has not addressed how to define a religion for purposes of a Title VII employment discrimination issue.The judge described the proper analysis in the Second Circuit this way:

To determine whether a given set of beliefs constitutes a religion for purposes of either the First Amendment or Title VII, courts frequently evaluate: (1) whether the beliefs are sincerely held and (2) “`whether they are, in [the believer’s] own scheme of things, religious.'”

In analyzing the second factor — whether a set of beliefs are, in the believer’s “own scheme of things, religious,” — courts look to whether the belief system involves “ultimate concern[s].”

In analyzing the “harnessing happiness” approach used in this case, the court wrote:

[E]mails [between company personnel and the program coordinator] reflect references — in the specific context of discussions about [Harnessing Happiness] — to God, spirituality, demons, Satan, divine destinies, miracles, “higher guidance teachings,” and a grail.

Testimonial evidence from claimants further underscores the religiosity of… Harnessing Happiness. Claimants describe Jordan and others repeatedly referencing God and other spiritual matters in the workplace, often in a manner directly connected to [Harnessing Happiness]. Maldari testified that Jordan, referring to CCG employees, stated that “God loves us all” and spoke about “demons and angels.” Maldari also testified that she and other employees “were told [by Hodes] that we were chosen.” Safara testified that Jordan sent emails including spiritual texts that she felt compelled to read.

Relying on those elements of the program’s implementation here, the judge ultimately ruled that the Harnessing Happiness program is a religion under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and rejected the company’s argument that the program is merely a “conflict resolution tool.”

As litigants increasingly claim that their beliefs are being threatened, this question of whether they are a religion under the law is not an uncommon issue. 

In New York a week ago, a judge dismissed a lawsuit brought by a supporter of President Trump who was kicked out of a bar for wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat. The judge denied the plaintiff’s claims that his hat was an expression of his “spiritual beliefs” which are protected against religious discrimination by the Civil Rights Act. 

Meanwhile a court in Indiana is considering whether The First Church of Cannabis qualifies as a religion for purposes of the church’s claim that the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act offers a defense to state laws prohibiting the use of marijuana.

There will no doubt be more – and more complicated – questions regarding the religiosity of certain beliefs and practices. Different courts in different contexts apply a range of definitions. It remains to be seen whether the defendant in the Harnessing Happiness case will appeal further whether the court used the correct standard. Stay tuned.