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EEOC sues firm that fired workers for not participating in 'Onionhead' religion

EEOC sues firm that fired workers for not participating in 'Onionhead' religion

A health network has been charged by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission with religious discrimination for allegedly forcing its workers to participate in group prayers and other religious activities as part of the “Onionhead” religion, the agency said Wednesday.

The company’s attorney said in a statement he expects the lawsuit to be dismissed.

The EEOC said Syosset, New York-based United Health Programs of America Inc. and its parent company, Cost Containment Group Inc., which provide customer service on behalf of various insurance providers, has coerced employees to participate in ongoing religious activities since 2007, including group prayers, candle burning and discussions of “spiritual” tests.

The EEOC said the religious practices are part of a belief system that the defendants’ family members created called “Onionhead.” It said 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 which was work-related. Employees who opposed taking part in these religious activities or did not participate fully were terminated, the agency said.

According to the Syosset-based Harnessing Happiness Foundation, Onionhead, which was developed more than 20 years ago, “helps us direct our emotions in a truthful and compassionate way. Which in turn assists us to communicate more appropriately and peacefully.”

The companies were charged with violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“Individuals are free to practice religion or not in line with their own personal beliefs,” Robert D. Rose, regional attorney with the EEOC’s New York district office, said in a statement. “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.”

Company attorney David J. Sutton, of the Law Offices of David J. Sutton P.C. in Garden City, New York, said in a statement, “The EEOC complaint is entirely without merit and we expect that it will be summarily dismissed.”