21 Aug 2014
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Lawsuit: No Prayer, You're Fired

Lawsuit: No Prayer, You're Fired

A Syosset company fired workers who refused to take part in the business’s imposed religious activities, violating the employees’ civil rights, a federal agency has charged in a lawsuit.

The business, United Health Programs of America, Inc., and its parent company, Cost Containment Group, forced employees to participate in group prayers, candle burning and spiritual-text discussions, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which filed the suit, announced Wednesday. The company provides customer service for various insurance providers. 

These practices are “part of a belief system that the defendants' family member created, called ‘ Onionhead,’" the EEOC said in a news release. “Employees were told to 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.”

Employees who opted not to participate in these religious activities or did not participate fully were fired, according to the EEOC.

The alleged requirements violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on religion.

"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 Sunu P. Chandy, an EEOC senior trial attorney, in a statement. 

"Individuals are free to practice religion or not in line with their own personal beliefs,” said Robert D. Rose, regional attorney of EEOC's New York District Office.

“Employers are not permitted to dictate this area of workers' lives,” he added. “Workplace pressure to conform to the employers' spiritual or religious practices violates federal employment law. 

The company could not be immediately reached for comment. 

A website for the Syosset-based Harnessing Happiness Foundation refers to its members as "Onionheads." The foundation describes itself as a "nonprofit dedicated to teaching problem solving skills, conflict resolution and appropriate behavior through emotional awareness."

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