Some employers have introduced meditation, yoga, and other quasi-spiritual practices into the workplace, usually intended to foster increased teamwork or productivity. A new decision from the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals cautions employers to exempt employees who object to these activities based on religious grounds. The case, Ollis v. HearthStone Homes, Inc., was filed by an employee who was a member of the Assemblies of God Church. He alleged that his employer believed in reincarnation, and conducted “Mind Body Energy” sessions intended to increase work performance through elimination of negative energies. The company kept records of employees’ attendance at these sessions. The employee sued, claiming that mandatory adherence to these practices constituted religious discrimination.
The Eighth Circuit affirmed a jury verdict for the plaintiff. It concluded that the employer’s introduction into the workplace of practices relating to reincarnation conflicted with the employee’s religious beliefs. While employers’ burden to accommodate employees’ religious beliefs and practices is relatively low, in this case, the employer could not show how these sessions directly related to work performance. In most workplaces, at least some employees will find “New Age” spiritual or quasi-spiritual practices objectionable. While Title VII does not prohibit introduction of meditation or similar practices into the workplace, employers should be sensitive and accommodating to employee objections, and should avoid creation of an atmosphere where adherence to such practices is viewed as a term or condition of employment.