Lawsuit: Syosset company fired workers who refused to pray

An image of a promotional manual for the An image of a promotional manual for the principles of the Harnessing Happiness Foundation, whose followers call themselves Onionheads. Photo Credit: Harnessinghappiness.org

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Employees of a Syosset company who opposed participating in religious activities at work, including group prayers, candle burning and discussions of spiritual texts, were improperly fired, a federal agency claims in a lawsuit.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said Wednesday it has filed a religious discrimination suit against United Health Programs of America Inc. and its parent company, Cost Containment Group Inc., which provide customer service on behalf of various insurance providers.

According to the suit, United Health violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on religion.

Since 2007, the company coerced employees to participate in ongoing religious practices that are part of a belief system -- Harnessing Happiness, or Onionhead -- created by a family member of the defendants, the suit claims.

"Employees were told to wear Onionhead buttons, pull Onionhead cards to place near their work stations and keep only dim lighting in the workplace," the agency said in a news release. "None of these practices was work-related.

"When employees opposed taking part in these religious activities or did not participate fully, they were terminated," the agency said.

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But the company's attorney, David J. Sutton of Garden City, said, "The EEOC complaint is completely without merit and will be summarily dismissed."

In a statement, the company said it is a "caring, family oriented business" that pays for day care for its diverse workforce, provides a health care plan and 401(k) retirement plan.

"Given how we treat our employees, we are saddened that our government would subject our company to the expense of this meritless lawsuit," the statement read.

The EEOC filed suit in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York after first attempting to reach a pre-litigation settlement through its conciliation process, the news release said.

The lawsuit said that, "Defendants compelled employees to take part in Onionhead-related religious activities on a routine basis to maintain their employment with defendants."

Among the practices, the lawsuit claims, are "prayer circles, asking employees to thank God for their employment, and saying 'I love you' to management and colleagues."

Three former employees on whose behalf the lawsuit was filed were terminated, two in 2010 and one in 2012, after they voiced their opposition to the practices, the lawsuit said.

Attempts to reach those employees were unsuccessful Wednesday.

"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, senior trial attorney for the federal agency.

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