Employers typically begin decorating for the holidays this time of year, and many have questions about appropriate workplace decorations that support a diverse work environment.

Not all signs of the holidays implicate a religious expression.

In 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court clarified which symbols would be considered “religious” in a case related to public-sector buildings and holiday displays.

The First Amendment’s Establishment Clause applies only to public-sector employers, which “prohibits government from appearing to take a position on questions of religious belief or from making adherence to a religion relevant in any way to a person’s standing in the political community.”

Specific to Christmas symbols, the court said, “Although the government may acknowledge Christmas as a cultural phenomenon, it may not observe it as a Christian holy day by suggesting that people praise God for the birth of Jesus.”

Private-sector employers are not subject to the Establishment Clause, but the Supreme Court’s interpretation of what could constitute a religious symbol is instructive to how public- and private-sector employers should decorate for the holidays.

The court held that symbols such as a creche (displaying a Nativity scene) with a religious message, or a menorah, is considered religious symbols.

“The Christmas tree, unlike the menorah, is not itself a religious symbol. Although Christmas trees once carried religious connotations, today they typify the secular celebration of Christmas,” the court said.

There was no dispute for the court that symbols which may be signs of the celebration of Christmas — such as wreaths, garlands or Santa Claus figures — are secular and not religious.

All employers should consider the diverse workplace and avoid public support for a particular religion, unless the business is itself a religious establishment such as a religious school, hospital or similar organization.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act provides that all employees (in the public and private sector) must be free from discrimination and harassment based, in part, on religion, and are entitled to reasonable accommodations for their religious beliefs unless providing the accommodation constitutes an undue hardship.

The statute is enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, so employers can look to the EEOC’s own guidance to determine how to inadvertently avoid violating the law.

According to the EEOC’s guidance, employers are generally free to decorate the workplace with Christmas, Hanukkah or other displays without violating the law. The EEOC’s guidance provides that employers are free to display wreaths and Christmas trees, adding that employers are not required to add holiday decorations associated with other religions if it displays these symbols.

Employers should not avoid providing secular decorations out of fear that some do not celebrate any holiday.

This is a fun and festive time of year and tastefully decorating with holiday trees, lights, wreaths, garland, Santa Claus, stockings, bells and other secular nonreligious displays will create an upbeat and enjoyable working environment.

If an employee complains, businesses should point out that the decorations are designed to be nonreligious and simply being added to celebrate a festive time of year.

Employers should generally avoid displaying religious symbols unless the organization’s general purpose and mission inherently supports a religion.

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Karen Michael is an attorney with Richmond-based KarenMichael PLC. She can be reached at kmichael@karenmichaelconsulting.com.

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