In the film Night School, the main character experiences a workplace that mixes religion and the workplace in a way that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) would not approve of.
In this comedy starring Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish, Hart plays Teddy Walker, a successful outdoor grill salesman who is living beyond his means to impress his girlfriend, Lisa (Megalyn Echikunwoke). Unfortunately, while proposing to his girlfriend in the grill store, Walker accidentally burns it down.
As a high school dropout, Walker struggles to find a comparable job. When his best friend, a merchant banker, promises him a financial analyst position, so long as he obtains his General Equivalency Diploma (GED), Walker enrolls in night school, taught by Carrie (Tiffany Haddish).
To make ends meet while attending night school, Walker works at a fast-food restaurant called Christian Chicken. Walker’s job requires him to wear a chicken suit while holding a sign that says the restaurant’s food is “heavenly” and yelling, “Christian Chicken! Honk once if you love chicken! Honk twice if you love the Lord. Come and get your chicken if you ready to start winning.”
During one of his shifts, Walker’s boss also cheerfully encourages all employees to take a break and participate in a prayer circle. While Night School takes on the intersection of religion and the workplace in a good-natured, The Office-like manner, a recent $5.1 million jury verdict in an EEOC-initiated lawsuit demonstrates that this issue is no laughing matter.
Conflict Resolution Tool Found to Be Religious
In 2014, the EEOC, in a case designated EEOC v. United Health Programs of America, Inc. and Cost Containment Group Inc., brought an action in the Southern District of New York, alleging that defendants terminated a group of former employees after they refused to engage in religious practices mandated by the “Onionhead” belief system.
According to the lawsuit, defendants forced employees to follow an internal “Harnessing Happiness” system, which included engaging in activities from prayers and religious workshops to “spiritual cleansing rituals,” “thank[ing] God” for their jobs, and saying “I love you” to managers and colleagues.
At summary judgment, defendants explained that they brought in a family member of the CEO to help improve the company’s deteriorating morale. According to defendants, the company’s employees were trained on the CEO’s signature “multi-purpose conflict resolution tool,” otherwise known as the Onionhead. The Court rejected defendants’ description of the program as a “conflict resolution tool” and, instead, compared the Onionhead to the 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous program, which the Second Circuit previously found to be a religion.
5.1 Million Reasons to Avoid Religious Coercion (and Retaliation)
Holding that the Onionhead was a religion for Title VII purposes, the Court allowed the case to proceed to trial. Following a 3-week trial in April 2018, “a unanimous Brooklyn federal jury found that [defendants] violated federal law by coercing 10 employees to engage in religious practices at work and by creating a hostile work environment for nine of them,” according to the EEOC’s April 26, 2018, press release. “The jury also found CCG violated federal law by firing one employee, who opposed these practices,” the EEOC’s press release further stated.
As the “Onionhead” case demonstrates, claims of religious discrimination are not reserved for mainstream religions like Christianity, and both the EEOC and the courts will generally take a broad view of what constitutes a religion for purposes of Title VII.
Moreover, employers should keep in mind that company-sponsored activities related to spiritual or religious topics and forced practices, like prayer in the workplace, are likely to open the door to a charge of discrimination from nonbelievers.