Happy Festivus! Religious holidays and the workplace

Business, Rights

Most employees are familiar with awkward, obligatory seasonal gatherings. But for some, the workplace holiday tradition falls into a different, religious category — one that might involve mandatory attendance at an annual birthday bash for Jesus or a celebration of all eight nights of Hanukkah, complete with quirky games and a week-long gift exchange. Whatever the situation, you may find yourself asking: Is this really allowed?

Here, a look at religion in the workplace: what’s allowed, what’s not, and what to do if you find yourself on the baby Jesus birthday cake committee every year.

Personal expression of religion in the workplace 

Government employers

As an extremely quick overview, there are two clauses in the Constitution addressing the intersection of religion, defined to include atheism and agnosticism, and federal or state government. First, the government shall not mandate expression or participation in any religion. Second, private citizens may freely exercise their genuinely held religious beliefs without unreasonable interference by the government.

Personal religious expression in the workplace might include placing a nativity scene next to the coffee maker or a menorah in the lunchroom. There are no rules against individual employees expressing their religion with these types of holiday symbols. And a government employer cannot forbid an employee from displaying religious symbols during the holidays. In fact, this issue came to the forefront of religious freedom litigation in 2008 when the city manager of Oklahoma City attempted to forbid employees from displaying “nativity scenes, troparia, cherubs, angels, crosses, or any other symbols of clear religious significance.” This maneuver was quickly objected to by First Amendment attorneys far and wide and was just as quickly dismissed.

Under the current status of religious freedom laws, the government cannot restrict or promote one religion over another and must permit the expression of the holiday season from both a secular and faith-based vantage. So, if an employer instates an official policy regarding holiday or religious decorations, it can quickly turn into a legal battle of constitutionally protected religious freedom versus a company trying to avoid offending other employees.

Private companies 

In a private company, the constitution’s religious protections do not apply, as religious freedom and free exercise clauses are meant to prevent unlawful intrusions by government actors, not private citizens. As such, whether religious symbols are permitted during the holidays will depend on the specific internal policy of the employer.

There are still some guidelines, however. For example, an employer is likely prohibited from allowing one religion and not another but is also within his right to ban all religious symbols equally. Compare this with the mandate that the federal government must reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious obligations, meaning it cannot interfere with religious observance, celebration, participation in prayer, fasting or any other faith-based activity.

Religious-based activities and how to get out of them

For all of the reasons above, government employees should never be required to attend any faith-based or religious-themed holiday gatherings, as this would run counter to the mandate against governmental subscription to a certain religion.

However, if you work for a private business, you may find yourself lawfully in this situation and may need a way out. Fortunately, a private employer cannot discriminate against an employee based on religious identification. Under First Amendment federal case law, the choice not to follow a religion or to denounce religion altogether is in and of itself a religious choice that must be equally respected under the law. Therefore, an employer cannot adversely treat an employee who refuses to attend a religious-themed holiday gathering and would face liability for religious discrimination if they did.

So, in sum, you can profess your religion at your job, or not. You can attend a Christmas or Hanukkah party, or not. If you are a government employee, this should never be an issue. If you work at a private employer, you have every right to refuse to join in these activities and should never face any mistreatment for this decision.

On the flip side, an employer is within his right to allow the placement of religious items around the holidays. As long as all religions, both secular and non-secular, are treated equally, it will be very difficult to maintain a successful complaint against the employer.