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‘Onionhead’ ruled a religion in Syosset discrimination case

A Brooklyn federal judge has ruled that a Syosset health care business will have to face a discrimination trial for allegedly forcing workers to pray, chant and participate in spiritual interpersonal workshops known as “Onionhead” and “Harnessing Happiness.”

U.S. District Judge Kiyo A. Matsumoto said the program — represented by a logo with an anthropomorphic onion — amounted to a religion, and United Health Programs of America had to face charges from 10 workers that they were fired for failing to go along.

“Numerous religious practices purportedly permeated the office environment,” Matsumoto wrote in her 102-page opinion. “Virtually every claimant described prayer, sometimes mandatory. . . . Employees were expected to hold hands, hug, kiss and express love, at workplace meetings.”

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued United Health Programs, a small firm providing discount medical plans, in 2014. Matsumoto said the company claimed Onionhead, implemented by an aunt of the CEO for $330,000 a year, was a “conflict-resolution” tool.

But the judge said workers described a cultlike atmosphere with rites ranging from incense burning to “cleanse the workplace” and dimming lights to prevent demons from entering, to chants, prayers and delving into workers’ personal lives.

One New Jersey woman, Matsumoto said, was told that “a message from the universe or God” required her to move to Long Island, and was terminated when she didn’t. Two women said they were fired after disclosing they were Catholic and didn’t want to participate in Onionhead.

The judge said Onionhead’s approach — “chants and prayers, mentions of God, transcendence, and souls, and the strong emphasis on spirituality” — compared to other “non-traditional” belief systems courts have found to be tantamount to religion, such as Alcoholics Anonymous.

The judge’s ruling, released last Friday, said claims of a hostile work environment based on reverse religious discrimination on behalf of all 10 plaintiffs would go to a jury, but she also dismissed some claims.

Amy Traub, a lawyer for United Health Programs, disputed Matsumoto’s conclusion that Onionhead was a religion, and said the company looked forward to a trial.

“There is no evidence that the plaintiffs were forced to participate in Onionhead activities or were subjected to a hostile work environment on the basis of any such activities,” Traub said. “We . . . believe that any celebration by the plaintiffs at this juncture would be misplaced and premature.”

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