The Holidays have always been in essence a religious holiday. While Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus, the Jewish people celebrate Chanukah and other religions and cultures have their own celebrations. In a country that has laws dictating the separation of Church and State and that prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion and race this can lead to some delicate situations. Complicating the situation is the fact that over the years there has been a secularization of the Holidays with Santa, Elves and the land of misfit toys. Well meaning employers can get carried away with the Christmas spirit and may not realize that they are force feeding a religious celebration to their employees who may not share their religious beliefs. Employers need to remember that they can not force an employee to participate in a religious celebration. One example of what can happen is the religious discrimination law suit that was filed against Belk Department stores by an employee who was fired after refusing to wear a Santa hat and apron. The employer probably did not feel that he was promoting religion but they need to be careful about mandatory participation in anything that could even remotely be interpreted as religious. In the government arena it becomes even more complicated as employers have to be careful of not opening themselves up to accusation of State sponsored and funded religious activities.
Here are a few friendly reminders to employers about how to minimize your chances of getting sucked into a religious discrimination dispute around the holidays:
- Remember that religious discrimination involves treating a person (an applicant or employee) unfavorably because of his or her religious beliefs. An employee cannot be forced to participate (or not participate) in a religious activity as a condition of employment. It does not always have to be obviously religious. Remember the department store that got sued for requiring an employee to simply wear a Santa hat.
- The law protects people belonging to traditional organized religions and those who have sincerely held religious, ethical or moral beliefs.It is illegal to harass a person because of his or her religion.
- Unless it would be an undue hardship on the employer’s business operation, an employer must reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs or practices. This includes schedule changes, leave for religious observances, and dress or grooming practices.
Employers need to remember that we are a society made up of many cultures and beliefs. It is wonderful to share the Joy and Spirit of the Season as long as we remain respectful and tolerant of those from different backgrounds.