Halloween Celebrations Can Spark Religious Discrimination Claims

Employers dealing with a shaky financial situation and stressed-out employees may use Halloween to add some fun to the workplace.  Allowing employees to dress up doesn’t cost the company a dime, unless you want to hold a costume contest.  Even then, the prizes can be nominal.  But beware of the legal bogeyman: Religious discrimination claims filed by employees who don’t celebrate the holiday.


For example, a Pentecostal Christian employee may object to Halloween celebrations on the grounds that Halloween promotes Paganism.  One employee did this in 2007, claiming that the Halloween decorations in her office subjected her to religious discrimination.  A judge dismissed the claim, holding that “Halloween lost its religious and superstitious overtones long ago.  It has become instead a commercial holiday enjoyed by communities in its many forms of entertainment.”  Another judge might not feel the same way, especially if the protested event is more intrusive than a few decorations.


Employees who are Jehovah’s Witnesses are forbidden from celebrating Halloween (or any holiday) due to their beliefs.  An ambulance service in South Carolina is currently under fire for terminating an emergency medical technician who is a Jehovah’s Witness for refusing to participate in a Halloween carnival on behalf of the company.  “Employers must respect employees’ sincerely held religious beliefs and carefully consider requests made by employees based on those beliefs.  The law requires that employers explore alternative arrangements acceptable to both the employer and the employee to settle the problem.  Refusal to even consider such an adjustment leaves the employer open to a possible religious discrimination suit,” said the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).


It is important to evaluate whether employees’ religious beliefs can be accommodated.  Your unfamiliarity with a religion or religious belief is not an excuse to refuse to provide an accommodation.


If an employee protests a one-time event that the company is holding for fun (e.g., costume contest), certainly do not hold their non-participation against them.  (Make sure their manager understands this, also!)  The key to avoiding religious discrimination charges is to make participation in such celebrations truly voluntary.  Never force employees to dress up, or even force them to watch a Halloween-related contest.  If they request the day off, grant it, if it doesn’t pose an undue hardship.


In the case of a religious-themed job duty (e.g., the carnival in the case above, restaurant wait staff singing “Happy Birthday” to patrons), evaluate whether the employee can be relieved of the duty.  The reasonableness of this accommodation depends on factors such as the nature or importance of the duty and the availability of others to perform the duty.  In other situations, transferring an employee to a different position or location could also be a reasonable accommodation, depending on the availability of other positions and the applicability of a collective bargaining agreement or seniority system.  Caveat: The transfer cannot entail less pay, responsibility, or opportunity for advancement unless a lateral transfer is not available or would otherwise pose an undue hardship.