Can Crosses on Holiday Invitations Create a Hostile Work Environment?

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Oct 2, 2014

By Eric B. Meyer

Remember yesterday, when I was talking about religious accommodations, I said, “Treat all religions equally.”

That same rule applies to casting out the evil devil of religious discrimination generally.

Rich v. Arizona Regional Multiple Listing Service, Inc. involves an Jewish employee who claimed, among other things, that her Christian co-workers created a religiously hostile work environment for her.

Was the hostile behavior severe or pervasive?

Among her allegations, Ms. Rich claimed that her employer placed crosses on the invitations to the mandatory company holiday party and hired carolers who sang songs at the party with heavy Christian lyrics, including “Christ our Lord.” She also alleged that, after she emailed the staff about the meaning of Hanukkah, HR accused her of violating company policy against using work computers for personal reasons, despite that the company continued to send Christmas-related emails to the staff.

So, what do you think? Hostile work environment?

Well, remember, a hostile work environment requires behavior that is either severe or pervasive. In arguing that the actions Ms. Rich described failed to satisfy the test, the company cited to another case in which a court determined that there was no hostile work environment where the plaintiff alleged that a co-worker had asked him whether “people from the Mideast beat their wives;” a supervisor asked him “How come you cannot accept Jesus Christ as the messiah, the son of God? After all, he was a Jew;” and that same supervisor told him that there “is no such holiday” as Yom Kippur.

Note to employers: Treat all religions equally

The court, however, disagreed with the employer here and concluded that Ms. Rich had put forth enough allegations in her complaint to be able to continue to pursue her claims further.

Notably, the court underscored that, while “some traditional symbols of Christmas, such as the Christmas tree or perhaps a poinsettia plant, have arguably assumed a primarily secular significance in modern society,” not so much when it comes to crosses on the holiday party invitations, and a song about “Christ our Lord.”

So peep this: Unless you work for a church, keep the crosses off the holiday party invitations and instead, go secular.

Want to put up a Christmas tree? Cool. (The court was wrong; a Christmas tree is not secular). Just be prepared to display a Menorah, Kinara, or other religious symbol for employees who celebrate other religious holidays.

Treat all religions equally.

This was originally published on Eric B. Meyer’s blog, The Employer Handbook.