Freedom of religion includes freedom from religion (Guest commentary)

Planning a holiday party? Keep it voluntary and inoffensive

Brian Kreissl
The concept of freedom of religion, which is enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as well as in federal and provincial human rights legislation, also includes the concept of freedom from religion. In Canada, we generally recognize that people should have the right to practice their religion freely as long as it does not infringe upon the rights of others. Inherent in freedom of religion is the idea people are free to practise religion in a very limited way — or not at all.

Those with little or no religious affiliation are often classified as atheists, agnostics or secular humanists. An atheist believes there is no God. An agnostic believes we are unable to know whether or not there is a God. Some people who call themselves agnostics actually do believe in some kind of a God, but they feel we are unable to determine the exact form of that God, or which religion is in fact the “right” one. Secular humanists live a religion-free way of life guided by reason and scientific inquiry. Followers of secular humanism are motivated by ethics, compassion and fairness, and specifically reject the supernatural and the spiritual.

It is important to remember, however, religion usually has a cultural component, and is often related to a person’s ethnic background and heritage. Even non-religious people often want to participate in traditions of a religious or quasi-religious nature. For example, many atheists with Christian backgrounds still celebrate Christmas and Easter with their families even though, for them, those holidays have lost their religious significance. Likewise, secular Jews will often take time to celebrate Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, Passover and Hanukkah. Religious holidays are often seen as important times for families to be together, even for people with limited or no formal religious affiliation.

Religion in the workplace can cause difficulties, not only for those of different faiths, but for those with little or no faith at all. At the risk of being accused of excessive political correctness, planning workplace activities with religious origins should be avoided if possible. This does not mean holiday parties for employees should be cancelled. However, no one should ever be forced to participate in workplace activities and celebrations that have religious connotations. The following checklist provides some tips for employers to remember when planning such events.

• The office “Christmas party” should be renamed the “holiday party” to avoid offending those of other faiths and people who are not religious.

• Telephone and voicemail greetings, company greeting cards, banners and decorations should use neutral phrases such as “Season’s Greetings” or “Happy Holidays” as opposed to “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Hanukkah.”

• Decorating cubicles with holiday themes can be fun but should never be forced on employees or make them feel uncomfortable if they don’t participate. Also, employees should be encouraged to decorate their desks in themes related to their own cultural or religious backgrounds, rather than forcing one particular religious theme.

• If religious holidays such as Christmas are celebrated and recognized in the workplace, other faiths should also be recognized, as well as celebrations of a secular nature, such as Canada Day. If a Christmas tree is put up in the office, it might be wise to display a menorah in recognition of Hanukkah or to decorate the office for Chinese New Year.

• Be sensitive to the wishes of all employees, regardless of their numbers. If someone is offended by what she sees as an overt religious display, take her concerns seriously. However, if your office has always had a tree at Christmas, it is probably not necessary to ban the tree unless there is a strong objection.

• If religious holidays are recognized and celebrated in the workplace, avoid extremely religious displays such as crosses, crucifixes and nativity scenes.

• Remember that seemingly secular celebrations such as Halloween, St. Patrick’s Day and Valentine’s Day may have religious origins. Respect the wishes of people who do not want to celebrate such festivals and understand that, for them, these celebrations may be more than just “harmless fun.”

• Respect and accommodate the dietary requirements of different religions and give employees some choice when serving food. Before an event, it is a best practice to ask employees if they have any special dietary requirements.

• Remember that cultural and religious diversity does not apply just to workplaces in big cities.

Brian Kreissl is managing editor of Consult Carswell, a comprehensive online information tool for HR practitioners published by Thomson Reuters Canada and a sister product to Canadian HR Reporter. This article was prepared with the assistance of Judy Lutz, a product writer for Consult Carswell. For more information, visit

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