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Should religious holidays be statutory holidays?

Christmas, Easter are stat holidays in Canada – giving Christians a benefit other religions don't enjoy

By Stuart Rudner

Should Christmas and Easter be statutory holidays in Canada?

That, essentially, was the question I have seen posted on various social media outlets in recent weeks. While the issue raises potential human rights concerns, this post is intended to address the issue more from the perspective of fairness and practicality.

In Canada, Christmas Day and Boxing Day are statutory holidays, as is Easter Monday. In some jurisdictions, Good Friday is as well. No other religious or religion's holidays are also statutory holidays.

We are all aware of the push toward equality, fairness and political correctness. Some people continue to be frustrated by the notion that Christmas parties are now "holiday parties," and the notion of eliminating Christmas and Easter as statutory holidays seems to be yet another infringement. That being said, it must be recognized that making one religion's holidays into statutory holidays does provide the people who celebrate those holidays with a benefit others don't have.

In order to illustrate this, I will provide a personal example. I am part of a multicultural family — I am Jewish and my wife is Christian. Although we made the decision to raise our children as Jews, we also celebrate Christmas in order to respect my wife's traditions and, frankly, because it is enjoyable and creates meaningful memories for our family.

In 2014, the first night of Hanukkah fell on Tuesday, Dec. 16. On the first night, families would typically gather, have a holiday meal, light the Hanukkah candles, enjoy traditional foods, play games and exchange gifts. Of course, Dec. 16 was a regular workday for my wife and I, and a regular school day for our children. In addition, both of our children had after-school activities, one of which ended at 9 p.m. As a result, we were forced to rush to get home and get things ready for the celebration, and then delay the celebration until after 9 p.m. when everyone was finally home. Despite the fact our children were up later than usual, we all had to get up the next morning to go to work and school.

By way of contrast, on the day before Christmas, both of our children will be off school since all schools close for the Christmas or winter break. My wife will be off work as well, as she is employed by a school board. My office will also be closed on the day before Christmas. Of course, since Christmas Day is a statutory holiday, none of us will have to go to work or school and the same will apply for the day after Christmas, since Boxing Day is a statutory holiday well. We will have plenty of time to get ready for our Christmas celebration, and no concern about staying up late. In other words, it will be far more convenient to celebrate Christmas than Hanukkah since it is a statutory holiday and falls during a school break.

We also have issues when other major Jewish holidays, such as Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur or Passover, arise. Many people are able to travel in order to be with friends or family over the Christmas holidays, without too much of a challenge. Conversely, if Rosh Hashanah falls on a Tuesday (which means it starts on Monday evening), it will be impossible for my family and I to join my mother in Montreal on time, as our kids will have a full day of school and my wife will be required to be at work. Furthermore, whether we travel out of town or stay in town, we will all have to take a day off of work or school in order to observe the holiday. By contrast, since Christmas is a statutory holiday, the vast majority of people will be entitled to that day off, as they will for Easter Monday.

This blog post is not written in order to complain. Jews are a very small minority in Canada and it is impossible to accommodate the needs of every group. That being said, through my work as an employment lawyer, it has become clear many people do not recognize the challenges non-Christians face when they attempt to observe their own holidays and do not have the benefit of automatically being entitled to be off work on two of their most important ones.

One possibility I have seen raised would be for every employee to have a specific number of religious days off work. They could choose the days that are appropriate for them, rather than being forced to take Christmas and Easter. While not a perfect system, it would be more equitable.

I welcome any comments on this issue.

Stuart Rudner

Stuart Rudner, Employment Lawyer and MediatorStuart Rudner is the founder of Rudner Law (RudnerLaw.ca), a firm specializing in Employment Law and Mediation. He can be reached at stuart@rudnerlaw.ca, (416) 864-8500 or (905) 209-6999, and you can follow on Twitter @RudnerLaw.
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  • Human rights duty to accommodate
    Tuesday, January 6, 2015 6:09:00 PM by Stuart Rudner
    Yosie, thanks for your comment.

    While it is true that Human Rights legislation will require some level of accommodation, I don't think that it comes anywhere near leveling the playing field. To begin with, people of other religions are not entitled to two other days off, whether that be with or without pay. Accommodation requires some effort to find a way to allow the individual to engage in religious observance without loss of pay, which can mean having them work overtime on other days in order to make up the time lost, or similar mechanisms. Rather than having the day off automatically, the individual must request some form of accommodation. Just the requirement to make that request will dissuade many people from even trying. And in many workplaces, such requests will be informally discouraged. Furthermore, even if the individual is successful in getting the day off, the vast majority of people will still be at work. As a result, while their employer may give them the day off, their customers, clients, or colleagues may resent the fact that they are not available. Even if that is not the case, they will undoubtedly come back to work to find that while they were away, work continued to pile up. When I take a day off for a religious holiday, I know that I will have to deal with hundreds of email messages, voicemail messages, and other matters upon my return.

    There is also the need to explain the matter and the need for a day off, not only to your employer, but to everyone that you deal with. By way of contrast, everyone assumes that you will not be working on Christmas day.

    There are probably other distinctions as well, but it comes down to the point that currently, Christmas Day and Easter Monday are statutory holidays, granted without question, and are recognized as days on which the economy largely comes to a halt. Furthermore, almost everyone is entitled to be paid for those days even though they do not have to work. Conversely, anyone seeking other religious days off will have to request that accommodation, and then find a way to make up the time off if it is granted. Furthermore, additional stress is created by the fact that while that individual may be off, work is continuing to pile up for them on their return.

    As I said in the original article, this is not meant as a complaint. However, the post was intended to explain to people who take having Christmas and Easter off for granted that there are many people who face significant barriers when they attempt to observe their own holidays.

    Thanks again for your comment.
  • No solution
    Tuesday, January 6, 2015 6:07:00 PM by Stuart Rudner
    Thanks for your comment. I am not proposing a solution, but raising this issue because I am curious to see what others think. I also wanted to address the notion, often expressed during holiday season, that there is no unfairness in the fact that Christmas and Boxing Day are statutory holidays and they are really "secular" holidays anyway, so non-Christians have nothing to complain about.