The Secularization of the Holidays

School board’s decision to take the ‘religious’ out of all holidays raises questions for the workplace

By Tamara Lytle Dec 4, 2014
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It’s beginning to look a lot like … a nondenominational holiday.

This time of year, employers struggle with what to call holidays and how to celebrate them without offending workers or running afoul of the law.

In November, Montgomery County, Md., Muslim residents asked that their Eid al-Adha holiday be listed on the school calendar along with the observations of other religions. (It overlaps in 2015 with Yom Kippur, when schools will already be closed because of the Jewish holy day.)

When the idea caused a flap, the school board stripped all mention of any religious holidays from its calendar for next year. Schools will still be closed on Christian and Jewish holidays, but not Muslim holidays. School officials, in turn, say the holiday closings are based on how much student and staff absenteeism is caused by a holiday.

The decision to erase all holiday names from the calendar drew criticism of the school board—and reminded public and private employers that they must tread carefully when it comes to religious holidays. Three of the trickiest areas to navigate are holiday time off, holiday parties and holiday decorations.

Government employers and schools operate under different rules than private companies, pointed out David Barron, a labor and employment attorney and member at Cozen O’Connor law firm in Houston. Governments must be careful to separate church and state, while private companies must not discriminate based on religion under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Employees at some organizations may not care if their company calls the year-end soiree a Christmas party, has a Christmas tree or otherwise recognizes religious holidays. But “the more employees you have, the more diversity, [and the possibility of offending someone] should be higher on your radar screen,” advised Barron.

Seventy-three percent of people polled in this country by the Pew Research Center in 2012 said they were Christians. Six percent were other religions, such as Jewish and Muslim. And nearly 20 percent didn’t identify with any religion.

Under Title VII, if an employee complains about a religious issue, the company must try to work out an accommodation.

“When an employee raises an issue, be sensitive,” Barron said. “There are ways to address these issues. They don’t have to [result in] World War III.”

Having some sensitivity can save companies money on expensive lawsuits and discrimination claims. Religious claims with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission rose dramatically from 2007 to 2013, and so have payouts—from $2.2 million to $11.2 million.

Here’s how to handle some common issues:

Days off. Most companies give workers Christmas off. An employee who wants a different religion’s holiday off, for instance, could be offered a chance to work on Christmas instead, said Dave Jones, president of PassionWorks!, an employee engagement specialist firm. Some companies offer a list of set holidays and then give workers a few floating holidays to use for religious holidays that aren’t covered—or to use for any other purpose.

Party time. Whether you call it a Christmas party or a holiday gala, employees shouldn’t feel compelled to do anything religious. If an employer wants to include an optional prayer service, it should be held during nonwork hours, Barron said. In an increasingly secular culture, companies are often opting to call their events “holiday” parties instead of using the word “Christmas.” “Companies tend to follow the culture,” Barron said.

More than one in three bosses (38 percent) surveyed by the staffing service OfficeTeam in 2011 said it was an unwritten rule at their companies that employees should make an appearance at the holiday party. But most of those surveyed said there was no expectation that employees make a command appearance at a party.

A 2014 OfficeTeam survey found that more than half of office workers polled said their favorite way to celebrate a holiday at work was with a party. Another 24 percent said they’d prefer a charitable activity like a donation drive. Ten percent said they’d prefer a gift exchange, 9 percent opted for office decorations, and only 6 percent said they’d rather not celebrate holidays at work, or said they didn’t know their answer.

Decking the halls. If workers are allowed décor that’s not work-related when spiffing up their offices, desks or cubicles, then religious speech must be allowed, too, Barron noted—as long as the décor isn’t offensive. So, if they can post pictures of Kim Kardashian, they can also stick up a poster saying “Jesus is the reason for the season,” Barron said.

When it comes to official company decorations, many holiday symbols—such as Santa Claus and Christmas trees—are often viewed as more secular than religious. But even a manger in the lobby or a company Christmas card that mentions religion wouldn’t run afoul of the law, Barron said.

“If you are going to be an overtly religious company, it’s wise to combine that with a strong message to employees: ‘We welcome people of all faiths.’ ”

That said, a company should be aware of the environment in which it conducts business. Sensibilities may be different in a small town in the Midwest compared with New York City, for instance. But it’s important to have employees bring their holiday traditions to the office so it isn’t a sterile place, and also so employees can get to know and understand one another better, said Jones of PassionWorks!.

“If we come from respect, religious symbols aren’t a problem,” Jones said.

Tamara Lytle is a freelance writer based in Falls Church, Va.

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