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Note: This is related to the question asked at Mandatory participation in workplace holiday potluck, but the issues are not exactly the same, as in that question the issue was not religion, but just that the OP does not like potlucks.

Is there any case law or legal precedent regarding the right of an employee to decline to attend a "holiday party" at the workplace on religious grounds?

Variations on this question:

  • A workplace hosts a "Christmas party". Can a Jewish employee decline to attend on the grounds that he or she does not celebrate Christmas?
  • If yes, suppose the same workplace rebrands the celebration as a "Holiday party" and adds a menorah to the decorations. Can the Jewish employee still decline to attend on the grounds that it is still, in essence if not in name, a Christmas party?
  • If the employee observes the Jewish dietary laws and therefore cannot eat any of the food at the party, does that make a difference?
  • If the answer is that "holiday party" is inclusive by nature and therefore one cannot claim a religious reason not to attend, what about a member of a religion that does not observe a winter holiday at all, like Jehovah's Witnesses or Muslims?
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    Public holidays are legal holidays for everybody. A party for those holidays being a holiday party makes the "I don't celebrate a holiday at this time" objection irrelevant. – Nij Dec 13 '17 at 22:13
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According to the EEOC, in general:

An employee cannot be forced to participate (or not participate) in a religious activity as a condition of employment.

But how religious is this party? Simply calling it a "Christmas party" (or "holiday party") doesn't really make it a "religious activity". Many nonreligious people celebrate Christmas as a general holiday. If the party is nonreligious, then your religion is mostly irrelevant, whether or not it celebrates a winter holiday.

The law requires an employer or other covered entity to reasonably accommodate an employee's religious beliefs or practices, unless doing so would cause more than a minimal burden on the operations of the employer's business. This means an employer may be required to make reasonable adjustments to the work environment that will allow an employee to practice his or her religion.

So, they'd likely have to serve something you could eat if they're serving food, as that would be a reasonable accommodation. (But you'd have to inform them of your needs beforehand; asking them to go out and buy something during the party would probably not be "reasonable".)

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    Would just "letting the employee skip the party" not count as a reasonable accommodation? – mweiss Dec 13 '17 at 21:31
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    @mweiss Obviously, the employer can't just say "if you don't eat ham you can't come" and have that be the only accommodation available for Jewish employees. And the employee can't just say "I don't eat ham, therefore I'm not coming" if the employer has other acceptable accommodations. But if the employer and employee agree that the employee doesn't want or need to be there, then there's probably no reason they couldn't just agree to make it optional. – D M Dec 13 '17 at 21:43
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The legal basis would be Title VII and the ban on religious discrimination, which requires employers to make "reasonable accommodations" to the beliefs of the employee. The courts have vigorously resisted giving preference to particular beliefs over others (i.e. does not favor Judaism, Christianity etc. while disparaging Cargo Cult or Asatru). If a person has a firmly held belief, that is sufficient. See 29 CFR 1605.1 for the legal history of this. An employee would then need to report the need for a religious accommodation (give notice, not establish or justify). In which case, it would depends on the nature of the notification that was provided. For example, one might report a principled objection to any parties; or it might be an objection to parties during winter; or it might be based on an objection to cheeseburgers. In the case of the latter, there is a reasonable accommodation (do not require all people to eat cheeseburgers; or, if the simple existence of cheeseburgers in the same room is contrary to belief, put them in another room).

Under the relevant regulation,

refusal to accommodate is justified only when an employer or labor organization can demonstrate that an undue hardship would in fact result from each available alternative method of accommodation

The broadest accommodation is that the employee is excused from the party, so one would have to demonstrate that this would constitute an undue hardship.

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