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A jury in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn has awarded $5.1 million to 10 workers who said their health-network employer had forced them to participate in group prayers and other religious activities as part of the “Onionhead” religion, in a case that was filed on their behalf by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
In Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, plaintiffs, Elizabeth Ontaneda, Francine Pennisi, and Faith Pabon v. United Health Programs of American Inc. and Cost Containment Group Inc., filed in 2014, 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, had 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 were part of a belief system the defendants’ family members created called ”Onionhead.” It said employees were told to wear Onionhead buttons, place Onionhead cards near their work stations, and keep only dim lighting in the workplace, none of which were work-related.
The EEOC said in a statement Thursday the jury awarded $5.1 million in compensatory and punitive damages to the 10 individuals on Wednesday following a three-week trial.
The jury found the defendants had violated federal law by coercing the employees to engage in religious practices at work and by creating a hostile work environment for nine of them. The jury also found Cost Containment violated federal law by firing one employee, Faith Pabon, who opposed these practices.
In addition, to the $5.1 million award, the EEOC said it will also seek injunctive relief against the company to prevent future violations of federal law and back pay to be awarded to Ms. Pabon for her wrongful termination, which will be determined by U.S. District Judge Kiyo A. Matsumoto.
Judge Matsumoto had previously ruled that the Onionhead religious practice constituted a religion for purposes of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The EEOC said the Onionhead religion was created the Cost Containment CEO’s aunt, who spent substantial time in the company’s offices from 2007, implemented the workplace religious activities and had a role in employee hiring and firing.
EEOC trial attorney Charles Coleman, Jr., said in a statement: “This case featured a unique type of religious discrimination, in that the employer was pushing its religion on employees. Nonetheless, Title VII prohibits religious discrimination of this sort and makes what happened at CCG unlawful. Employees cannot be forced to participate in religious activities by their employer.”
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.