Don't Forget About Religious Discrimination When Throwing Your Office Halloween Party

 Personally, I love Halloween. Adore it. I have zombies in my courtyard to scare the kiddies, and a graveyard in front of the house with various and sundry body parts poking out. Yes, Halloween is great fun for those who celebrate it. However, there are some religions that ban celebrating Halloween altogether, and some people who have sincerely held beliefs against it.

Halloween is now a pretty secular holiday, but its origins are in the Catholic religion. The Catholic holiday, All Hallow's Eve, is the night before All Saint's Day. I'm not an expert, but I believe the idea was that souls were liberated from Purgatory on that day, so celebrants would pray for the souls of the dead and hold a vigil during the night. The tradition of going door to door came from the UK, when beggars would ask for a "soul cake" in exchange for offering a prayer for the soul of the dead of the household. Earlier Pagans also had a fall holiday featuring bonfires and feasts, called Samhain, that probably influenced the Catholic celebrations, particularly in the UK.

Here are just some of the religions that don't celebrate Halloween:

  • Jehovah's Witnesses: They don't celebrate any holidays or even birthdays.
  • Some Christians: Some believe the holiday is associated with Satanism or Paganism, so are against celebrating it.
  • Orthodox Jews: They don't celebrate Halloween due to its origins as a Christian holiday. Other Jews may or may not celebrate.
  • Muslims: Many Muslims don't celebrate Halloween, again due to its origins in other religions.

I'm sure there are others. In researching this article, I came upon this telling comment about people who can't/won't celebrate Halloween: "I hate debbie downers who don't celebrate holidays, seriously they don't have to stand for anything, they're just fun." When you're dealing with Halloween at work, many celebrants treat those who have religious objections as "debbie downers," party poopers who just don't want to have fun. Even worse, I've seen situations where employees were ordered to decorate desks and come in costumes because the workplace had contests for best decorated departments. When they refused, they were criticized and threatened as not being "team players."

So, I wanted to issue this reminder to all workplaces celebrating Halloween: don't force anyone to celebrate, decorate, or dress for Halloween. Don't harass them if they don't want to participate. If someone has a sincerely-held belief, then it's likely protected by Title VII's prohibition against religious discrimination. It doesn't matter if you agree with them, think they're mistaken, or even think their beliefs are stupid. What matters is respect for the beliefs of the person holding them.

HR folks might want to give themselves a refresher on religious discrimination and harassment before the company's Halloween celebration, so they can be ready when things go awry.

See more employment law posts on Donna Ballman's blog, Screw You Guys, I'm Going Home

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