Have a general question about employment law? Want to share a story? I welcome all comments and questions. I can't give legal advice here about specific situations but will be glad to discuss general issues and try to point you in the right direction. If you need legal advice, contact an employment lawyer in your state. Remember, anything you post here will be seen publicly, and I will comment publicly on it. It will not be confidential. Govern yourself accordingly. If you want to communicate with me confidentially as Donna Ballman, Florida lawyer rather than as Donna Ballman, blogger, my firm's website is here.

Friday, October 25, 2013

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.


  1. Halloween is not in anyway shape or form originally a catholic holiday.

    1. I'm afraid that's incorrect. All Hallows Eve is indeed a Catholic holiday. Halloween is a shortened version of that name: Hallows E'en became Halloween.

  2. My old HR department sucked at most things, but the one thing they were good at was religious accommodation. The company was owned and operated by pretty observant Jews, and, in one department, three of its six members were Jehova's Witnesses. Halloween was a huge thing at the office, and there were indeed costume contests, decorating in the departments, etc., but those who were against celebrating were always allowed to take a vacation or personal day (or an unpaid day if they didn't have the time available) to be away from it. Everyone appreciated that, because no one was uncomfortable and there were no "debbie downers" to complain about. I don't know why all companies can't be like that.

    1. Hi Karyn. I'm glad to hear some HR departments are getting it right!

    2. I'm not sure that allowing "those...against celebrating...to take a vacation or personal day (or an unpaid day if they didn't have the time available)" is "getting it right!" Having to use up one's allocated leave -- or, worse yet, going without pay -- is being penalized, which hardly seems like a reasonable religious accommodation.

    3. grannybunny, I would disagree. Almost all organizations require people to take PTO for non-government holidays which the employee may still celebrate. For instance, I'm a practicing Jew, but my company only pays days off for holidays such as Christmas or Good Friday. I elect to take other days off such as Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, and am not precluded from doing so even if I don't have the leave time available - but if I have it, I am expected to use it. It's not penalizing someone. Penalizing them would be to deny them the opportunity to take the day at all. "Reasonable accommodation" means just that - reasonable. Not optimal, not "the thing that would make the employee happiest." Reasonable.


I appreciate your comments and general questions but this isn't the place to ask confidential legal questions. If you need an employee-side employment lawyer, try http://exchange.nela.org/findalawyer to locate one in your state.