Courts Rule 'Onionhead' Arguably Is a Religion; Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster Isn't

Title VII has far-ranging antidiscrimination reach: From a ‘hot’ yoga instructor to 'Onionhead'

Allen Smith, J.D. By Allen Smith, J.D. October 19, 2017
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​Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964—which prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin and religion—has a much broader reach than some realize.

The definition of sex discrimination has expanded recently to encompass the claim of a female yoga instructor initially thought to be "too hot" for Title VII to protect. And a court allowed a religious discrimination claim to go forward against practitioners in the workplace of a religion based on a cartoon character named "Onionhead."

Onionhead

Religious discrimination claims are being stretched beyond what some might think is reasonable.

In 2014, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sued United Health Programs of America, a Long Island, N.Y., insurance firm, on behalf of three employees who claimed to have been fired after refusing to practice a religion they did not follow.

The alleged religion was "Onionhead," a belief system based on an "incredibly pure, wise and adorable" cartoon character who "wants everyone to know how they feel and then know what to do with those feelings," noted Greg Watchman, managing associate general counsel with Freddie Mac, headquartered in McLean, Va., at the Association of Corporate Counsel's recent annual meeting in Washington, D.C.

Onionhead's motto is: "peel it—feel it—heal it."

In September 2016, a federal judge decided that Onionhead arguably constitutes a religion and denied most of the company's summary judgment motions. The court deferred to the EEOC's position that religion includes "moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right or wrong."

Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster

By contrast, a court has ruled that the "Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster" (FSMism) is not a religion. Steven Cavanaugh, a resident of the Nebraska State Penitentiary, claimed prison officials had violated federal law by failing to accommodate his religion.

According to its website, FSMism arose as a response to the theory that the origins of life on Earth can be found in "intelligent design." The founders argue that the "master intellect" could just as easily be a flying spaghetti monster as any Judeo-Christian deity. Congregation members are known as "Pastafarians."

A federal district court in Nebraska ruled that the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is not a religion but rather is "plainly a work of satire." It rejected Cavanaugh's demand to be able to practice his religion with "grog, a parrot, a seaworthy vessel and a colander of goodness."

But Watchman joked, "What might the EEOC say? The EEOC might say it's a religion."

Yoga Instructor

The owner of a New York chiropractic practice fired a female yoga instructor and masseuse at the direction of his wife, after telling the yoga instructor she was "too cute," Watchman said.

The employee sued for gender discrimination, alleging that "attractiveness is directly tied to gender." 

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Equal Employment Opportunity]

A Manhattan judge ruled that Title VII does not provide a remedy for a discharge based on spousal jealousy. However, the appellate court reversed, deciding that an employment decision based on sexual attraction is gender discrimination (Edwards v. Nicolai, N.Y. App. Div., No. 160830/13 (Aug. 22, 2017).)

 

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