It is Christmastime, which means we have the annual controversies. You know what we’re talking about: A Nativity Scene dispute on the North Shore; a “holiday tree” proclamation across the state line; an apparent Seinfeld fan who erects a “Festivus Pole” in the city square. The list goes on and on…
This annual passage of holiday drama reminds us of another topic to add to the list: the myth that you cannot say “Merry Christmas” at work. Wrong. The Federal and State discrimination laws prohibit several types of conduct as “religious discrimination,” but saying “Merry Christmas” is just not one of them.
There is a lot to be said about religious discrimination, but we summarize below. Here are the basic points:
- An employer cannot treat an employee differently from others because of his/her religion.
- An employer cannot fire an employee, pass over an employee for promotion, or demote an employee because of his/her religion.
- An employer cannot harass an employee (or tolerate an individual is harassment of an employee) because of his/her religion.
- An employer cannot force an employee to participate in activity that violates his/her sincerely held religious beliefs.
- An employer must provide a “reasonable accommodation” for an employee’s sincerely held religious belief. The employer must find out what the employee needs and decide whether the employer can reasonably accommodate the request without “undue hardship.” The concept of “undue hardship” does not mean the employer has a pass to deny the request because “we just don’t want to.” The employer needs to be a real business justification, such as cost or safety – a justification that should be reviewed with an attorney before announcing the decision to the employee.
The Courts have yet to suggest that you cannot say “Merry Christmas” at work – as we expected. In fact, we couldn’t even find a case that mentioned this as an issue. Saying “Merry Christmas” to an employee does not offend the anti-discrimination laws. Of course, context is everything. If your boss says, “Merry Christmas. I will fire anyone who says ‘Happy Holidays’ instead of ‘Merry Christmas’,” your employer could have a problem on its hands.
So, Merry Christmas to you and your family. It’s okay to say it. If you disagree, you can invite us to a Festivus “Airing of Grievances.”