A few months ago, Seattle found itself in a bit of an uproar when an official raised the issue of using the term “brown bag” when advertising events. The official was greatly concerned about political correctness and fear that “brown bag” could be racially derogatory not simply referring to the traditional color of paper lunch bags. Hallmark also found itself faced with a surprising political correctness disaster when it decided to change the words to a well-known Christmas song, “Deck the Halls,” on a sweater and ornament. The company wanted to avoid confusion or negative, anti-gay debates with the use of “gay” in “Don we now our gay apparel.” They even went to the original lyrics of the song to see word it was translated from to make sure they were correct in their word change decision. However, this too was a moment when tradition is more benign and less offensive than assumed and unnecessary. The word change probably was not necessary but it did highlight the point that holidays tend to raise political correctness concerns. The on-going debate over the use of “Happy Holidays” vs “Merry Christmas” in retail stores during the holidays is a good example. When is it a actual discrimination and when is it simply a matter of political correctness?
Some people raise the issue of freedom of speech and religion and they cannot be told what to say and what not to say. The First Amendment does protect freedom of speech and freedom of religion, but only applies to government and the laws it creates. That means that employers have a lot of leeway. Your employer can play Christmas music on loop everyday, all day for the entire holiday season, should they so choose. They can also request that you say “Merry Christmas” over “Happy Holiday” or vice versa. And unless they are doing so with a discriminatory purpose, they are most likely not breaking any laws. Both state and federal laws prohibit religious discrimination, define religious discrimination, and give a baseline for when an employer’s actions cross the line from rights of the employer to run a business to infringing on an employee’s rights to discrimination free employment.
Religious discrimination occurs when an employer takes steps that will negatively affect an employee’s employment based primarily or solely on the employee’s religious beliefs. These steps can include: refusing to hire, firing, allowing other employees to harass the employee, refusing promotions or pay raises or schedules accommodating religious beliefs like clothing and holidays, and generally creating a hostile work environment. So unless an employer is purposefully targeting an employee with requirements to say “Merry Christmas” or only playing religious holiday music during the hours the non-Christian employee is working, it is probably not religious discrimination. Generally speaking holiday music, even religious holiday music, has more to do with inspiring customers to purchase more items and hopefully be more courteous, though many working in retail might question the good cheer element, than a promotion of religion or discrimination.
While the holiday season can elevate emotions and tensions within our diverse population, there is generally no discrimination intended. However, if you believe you have suffered from religious discrimination in the workplace, contact an experienced Washington employment law attorney.