As the weather grows cooler, the holidays are right around the corner. Many employers and workers are confused about what kind of holiday decorations, displays, and celebrations are legally allowed in the workplace.
Public vs. Private Employers
Many newsworthy legal challenges to holiday displays actually don’t affect most employers. The Constitution of the United States prohibits government entities from establishing or endorsing any particular religion, which affects the sort of holiday displays that towns, cities, and municipal entities and employers can display but does not restrict the rights of private employers. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that public governments and government employers, like police departments, public schools, and park districts, can legally erect holiday displays that are secular in nature (“Seasons Greetings” banners, Santa Claus houses, Christmas trees, etc.) or that include a variety of diverse religious items without endorsing one over another (e.g., a menorah, a Nativity scene, and Kwanzaa symbols displayed together).
What Can Private Employers Display?
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects workers from employment discrimination based on their religion, among other characteristics, and requires reasonable accommodation of employees’ sincerely held religious beliefs, observances, and practices unless accommodation would impose an undue hardship on business operations. This doesn’t mean, however, that private employers must restrict their holiday displays to secular symbols or create inclusive, diverse displays; private employers are legally entitled to endorse a religion and display religious symbols in their workplaces, including in holiday displays. Employees cannot be forced to participate in religious rituals, ceremonies, or practices, or disciplined for not doing so, but they are not entitled to have a workplace that is completely free of religion (including holiday décor) or that includes a diverse representation of various religious beliefs. The law permits private employers to display (or not display) whatever secular or religious holiday décor they choose.
What Can Employees Display?
What about employees who wish to display religious-themed decorations in their own workspaces celebrating Christmas, Kwanzaa, Hanukah, or other holidays? In addition to the protections of Title VII, The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) prohibits employers from discriminating against employees based on religion and from forcing those of faith to violate or suppress their religious beliefs as a condition of obtaining or maintaining employment. Because of this, although employers have a right to implement a reasonable, uniformly applied policy governing decorations or personalization of employee workspaces, they should not try to suppress religious expression in an employee’s personal workspace by prohibiting all holiday displays or by requiring that any display be secular in nature. Employers do not have to allow employees’ personal religious displays if doing so would create an undue hardship or if the displays would be visible or presented to the public in a way that implies they are endorsed by the company.
Wrongful Termination Because of Religious Discrimination
Although New Jersey is an "employment at will" state (which means that an employer or employee may terminate the relationship at any time, without a reason, without cause), an employer may not terminate a worker’s employment for an unlawful cause, such as in violation of the NJLAD or Title VII’s protections of religious expression. If you believe that you were terminated because of religious discrimination, contact an experienced New Jersey anti-discrimination attorney.
The Mark Law Firm can help with wrongful termination claims and any other employment issues. Our team of experienced employment lawyers has convenient locations in Basking Ridge, Newark, Oradell, Jersey City, and Union, New Jersey. Contact us to make an appointment to review your situation. We can help you determine whether you may have a legal basis for a workers’ compensation, employment, or wage and hour claim and take legal action to protect and enforce your rights.
 County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union, 492 U.S. 573 (1989); Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668 (1984).
Image by Photojunkie (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons