A reminder to anyone running a business: You should probably keep religion out of it.
That message was made loud and clear last week when a New York federal jury awarded 10 former and current employees of a Long Island company $5.1 million because the company was found to have forced them to practice certain religious activities. The company, United Health Programs of America, (and its parent, Cost Containment Group) provides insurance and other employee savings and benefit plan services for its customers.
According to the original lawsuit filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2014, United Health Programs employees were being forced to follow an internal “Harnessing Happiness” system started by an aunt of the owners in 2007 that required them to engage in activities such as prayers, religious workshops and “spiritual cleansing rituals.” Reuters reported that employees were also asked to “thank God” for their jobs and say “I love you” to managers and colleagues — or risk termination.
Nine employees said the “religiously infused atmosphere” created a hostile work environment for them, and the jury agreed. The same jury also found that another employee was fired for opposing the practices. A judge had previously ruled that the Harnessing Happiness system — which was also known as “Onionhead” — constituted a religion.
If you’re thinking of holding a prayer meeting or anything else remotely related to religion in your company, it may not be a great idea. Not only can it make some people uncomfortable, but it also could be against the law. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbids employers from coercing employees to engage in religious practices at work and bars them from firing or taking other adverse action against those who oppose such practices.
The EEOC felt that in this case, religion was being pushed on employees. “Title VII prohibits religious discrimination of this sort and makes what happened at Cost Containment Group unlawful,” EEOC trial attorney Charles Coleman Jr. said in a news release. “Employees cannot be forced to participate in religious activities by their employer.”
The EEOC is also seeking back pay for the employee who was fired.