Employer sued for banning Christmas

A few people have done searches on ‘religion in the workplace’ and found this post which I wrote last year. It’s clearly a subject that is of interest to a number of people.

Continuing with this theme, someone sent me a strange story from far away Oklahoma. It will sound familiar to a few people over here though.

Last Christmas, Oklahoma City Council banned its employees from putting up festive decorations in the workplace. The rationale was, apparently, to maintain neutrality and avoid appearing to favour one religion over another. The annual Christmas Party was also cancelled.

So far, so PC. Except that two employees sued the council for violating their religious rights. The council has just reached an out-of-court settlement with the employees, agreeing to pay their legal costs and to re-write its guidelines on the display of Christmas decorations.

This whole story strikes me as rather odd for a couple of reasons. The decision to ban Christmas decorations seems a bit paranoid. If they have been put up every year, why would anyone complain now? Unless, of course, there has been a change in Federal or State law leaving employers liable if they are seen to favour one religion over another. I know sod all about US law but I can’t imagine such legislation being passed in Oklahoma.

We have similar debates every year in the UK but, to my knowledge, no employer has banned Christmas decorations outright. Many have stopped employees from putting up lights, hanging decorations from ceilings and attaching things to computers, on health and safety grounds, but I have never heard of a total ban being enforced anywhere. Why any employer would want set itself up for an almost certain dispute in the way that Oklahoma City Council did is beyond me.

That said, I also find it strange that the City was forced to settle with the employees. Employers in the USA have far more power relative to their employees than they do in the UK. This is a country where you can be dismissed for having the wrong political views or for trade union activities. Surely an employer can say whether or not employees can hang decorations in their offices. Can it really be that religious rights trump the right to a political conscience and to organise a trade union?

At the moment, as far as UK law stands, I don’t think there would be any basis for such a claim against a British employer for taking a similar action, although the press would probably crucify them if they did.

This sort of dispute will almost certainly become more common as religious groups assert their rights. Employers are in a damned-if-they-do-damned-if-they-don’t situation. Try to avoid offending religious minorities by cancelling Christmas displays and you risk a claim from Christians claiming their religious rights have been infringed.

As I said before, more headaches for managers and more fees for lawyers.

BTW – Thanks to all who have emailed various bits and pieces to me. The email address is in the top right hand corner. Keep these mad stories coming.

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