Know your rights: What does freedom of religion cover?

Deciding whether to say, 'Happy Holidays' or 'Merry Christmas' can be a personal choice. But for employers, government agencies, and schools, holiday activities or public displays must respect freedom of religion; otherwise, they could be held liable for discrimination.

by Lisa C. Johnson, Esq.
updated May 11, 2023 ·  5min read

On the day after Thanksgiving, while some munch on turkey and pie leftovers, others take advantage of Black Friday sales at stores all over the country to finish their Christmas or Hanukkah shopping. Some make plans for Kwanzaa parties or winter solstice celebrations. Others make no plans at all.

In a country as large and diverse as the United States, and one that was founded on the principles of religious freedom, religions and spiritual practices abound. The religious faiths found in the U.S. include Evangelical and Mainline Christian, Catholic, Orthodox Christian (Greek and Russian), Jewish, Mormon, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, Hindu Jehovah's Witnesses.

Many people are unaffiliated with any religion, calling themselves agnostic, atheist, or nothing in particular. With such a diverse population and the desire to not offend anyone, the months of November and December present a challenge. Should we wish people merry Christmas or happy holidays? How do we strike a balance between enjoying the Christmas season's merriment and respecting others' religious beliefs? What exactly is freedom of religion?

While deciding how to wish people happy holidays comes down to personal choice, employers, government agencies, and teachers must be especially careful about how they represent, celebrate, and require participation in holidays to ensure they do not infringe on anyone's right to freedom of religion. That means holiday parties, public displays, school lessons, and more must all consider the law that protects the right to religious freedom.

Below is a case that highlights when an employer crosses the line, some guidelines on preventing discrimination in the workplace, tips for planning holiday activities in schools, and restrictions on the public display of nativity scenes.

Religion & employment: EEOC v. Belk Inc.

Charged with enforcing federal laws against employment discrimination, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a federal lawsuit against Belk Inc., the nation's largest department store, for religious discrimination.

According to a press release by the EEOC, “Department store chain Belk Inc. unlawfully discriminated against an employee by failing to accommodate her religious beliefs and discharging her because of her religion.” The former employee, Myra Jones-Abid, is a Jehovah's Witness, and her religion forbids her from celebrating holidays, including Christmas.

It's alleged that at the end of November 2008, while working in the gift wrap section of the store, Jones-Abid was told to wear a Santa hat and apron, which was to be worn by all employees doing gift wrap during the Christmas holiday season. She told her employers that she could not wear these items based on her religious belief and was fired.

EEOC attorney Lynette Barnes said, “In this case, the employer refused to provide a simple accommodation to enable Ms. Jones-Abid to practice her sincerely held religious belief and keep her job. An employee should not be forced to choose between her faith and her job.”

Religious discrimination in the workplace

The EEOC website gives some guidelines on preventing discrimination in the workplace based on religion.

  • Religious discrimination involves treating a person (an applicant or employee) unfavorably because of their religious beliefs.
  • The law protects people belonging to traditional organized religions and those who have sincerely held religious, ethical, or moral beliefs.
  • It is illegal to harass a person because of his or her religion.
  • Unless it would be an undue hardship on the employer's business operation, an employer must reasonably accommodate an employee's religious beliefs or practices. This includes schedule changes, leave for religious observances, and dress or grooming practices.
  • An employee cannot be forced to participate (or not participate) in a religious activity as a condition of employment.

The First Amendment: Religion & schools

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ...”

This passage from the Constitution is the source of our rights to freedom of religion. These 16 words have been the source of countless discussions, debates, writings, laws, regulations, and litigation.

The First Amendment Center put together consensus guidelines drafted and endorsed by 17 religious and educational groups regarding religious holidays and public education.

The guidelines note in particular that it's a common misconception that it is permissible to promote Christianity at Christmas, provided that other religions receive similar treatment at other times. “[O]ne violation of the First Amendment does not justify another. … [T]eachers should work to ensure that all holiday activities focus on objective study about religion, not indoctrination.”

According to the guidelines, teachers and administrators may want to consider three questions when planning holiday activities.

  1. Do I have a distinct educational purpose in mind? If so, what is it? The purpose of public schools is not to celebrate or observe religious holidays.
  2. If I use holidays as an opportunity to teach about religion, am I balanced and fair in my approach?
  3. Does the planned activity have the primary effect of advancing or inhibiting religion? The school's approach should be academic, not devotional. It is never appropriate for public schools to proselytize.

Christmas law: Government-sponsored public displays

An American Civil Liberties Union website article discusses some of the major legal issues surrounding Christmas and the First Amendment regarding public displays. Generally, a nativity scene or stand-alone crèche is not permitted when sponsored by the government because it has the effect of endorsing a Christian message, the birth of Christ.

However, if the crèche is just one part of a larger holiday display with things that are not religious, like reindeer, candy canes, Santa Claus, and Christmas trees, which are considered secular, it will probably be permissible.

In most interactions between individuals, a simple “happy holidays” is acceptable. After all, we could all use more peace on the earth and goodwill.


NRF Forecasts Holiday Sales Increase of 2.3 Percent, October 6, 2010

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

Belk, Inc. Sued by EEOC for Religious Discrimination, July 29, 2010

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Laws, Regulations, & Guidance: Religious Discrimination

First Amendment Center: About The First Amendment

Religious Holidays: A First Amendment Guide, February 15, 2010

American Civil Liberties Union: Christmas Law

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Lisa C. Johnson, Esq.

About the Author

Lisa C. Johnson, Esq.

Lisa Johnson is a Massachusetts attorney, freelance writer, and food blogger. Born in Boston, she currently resides in Q… Read more

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