By Meghan Droste, November 13, 2019
Time really flies — it feels like just a few weeks ago I was writing about how the EEO process should be your Valentine and now, all of sudden, we’re about two weeks away from Thanksgiving. Of course, the fact that my neighborhood grocery store put away the Halloween candy and already had Christmas-themed items out days before Halloween certainly doesn’t help with this. Regardless, we cannot ignore that the holiday season and all of its related decorations, festivities, and yummy treats are upon us once again.
To help you prepare for and navigate through this time of the year, here are some helpful decisions from the Commission on things that may or not be problematic:
For those of you wondering whether holiday decorations might be religious displays that are not permitted in government spaces, the answer is not necessarily. As the Commission has noted, according to the Supreme Court, Christmas lights and references to Santa Clause “amount to secular symbols rather than an expression of a religion” and, therefore, federal agencies can display them without running afoul of the First Amendment’s prohibitions against the federal government establishing a religion. See Garry H. v. Dep’t of Transp., EEOC App. No. 0120181570 (Sept. 24, 2019) (citing County of Allegheny v. ACLU, 492 U.S. 573 (1983)).
As a result, an agency did not discriminate against an employee based on his religion when it removed a “Happy Hanukkah” sign and a garland with stars of David but kept up Christmas lights and a sign that said “Santa is coming to town in [x number] of days.” See id.
What about accommodating an employee who does not want to see holiday decorations? The Commission addressed this issue in Ian S. v. Department of Transportation, EEOC App. No. 0120160622 (Apr. 27, 2018). The complainant requested a religious accommodation of being permitted to eat at his desk — employees in his unit were not allowed to have food or uncovered beverages at their desks due to the risk of damaging agency equipment —because he did not want to eat in the breakroom when it was decorated with Christmas decorations. The agency offered to allow him to eat in a breakroom in another, connected, building, but the complainant argued that this was not an effective accommodation because it would take too long to get to the other room. The Commission found that the agency’s offered accommodation was sufficient, particularly because the complainant had not voiced his concerns about the distance to any of his managers. The Commission also noted that the decorations — a tablecloth and two poinsettias — were secular and not religious in nature.
Finally, a quick reminder that not wanting someone at a holiday party is not a good reason for not hiring them. In Ebonie L. v. Department of Transportation, EEOC App. No. 0120171469 (Feb. 12, 2019), the complainant’s supervisor reprimanded her for saying that she did not want to hire a male applicant because having a male administrative employee “makes the administrative Christmas lunch and gift exchange awkward.” The Commission rejected her claim that the reprimand was discriminatory or harassing.
I hope these tidbits easy your minds and bring you some joy during the upcoming holiday season! Droste@FELTG.com