Vaguely worded Washington law grants public workers day off for Festivus
A state law enacted earlier this year in Washington could allow students and public employees to take a day off work to celebrate Festivus.
The law’s Democratic sponsor, state Sen. Bob Hasegawa, said his Muslim constituents in Seattle proposed the measure so they could take part in religious observances without penalty from schools or their employers.
The law, which was passed this spring and enacted in June, grants two days off to students and public employees to take part in religious holidays unless their absence would create undue hardship on their employer.
However, the measure – which attracted the support of Jews, Sikhs, and the interfaith Faith Action Network – does not specify which religious observances qualify for days off.
“It could be Festivus,” said Randy Lord, president of the Mukilteo City Council. “It isn’t up to me to determine what religion is good or bad.”
The fictional Dec. 23 holiday was introduced in a 1997 episode of the sitcom “Seinfeld,” although it has been increasingly celebrated in real life as a secular holiday.
Lord said city officials are crafting a policy to ensure public workers don’t celebrate impromptu “religious holidays,” because he said many cities already operate at minimum staffing levels to save money.
“We need to make sure it’s within our existing time-off policies,” Lord said. “That way no one shows up on a sunny day and calls it a religious day. That would just wreak havoc.”
The bill passed unanimously in the Senate, but House Republicans refused to back the measure because it allowed the Office of Financial Management to define undue hardship instead of the state legislature.
“The Legislature should be responsible for crafting that definition and then put it in statute,” said Rep. Liz Pike, R-Vancouver. “As a Legislature, we need to stop abdicating authority to non-elected agency bureaucrats.”
A spokeswoman for the National Conference of State Legislatures said she did not know of another state that allowed public employees to take off work for faith reasons.
Other states, such as Oregon, allow state employees to take off a specified number of personal hours each year in addition to vacation time, but these are not specifically reserved for religious observance.
A Maryland school district recently removed religious references to Christian and Jewish holidays on its calendar as a poorly received compromise to requests from Muslim families for days off to celebrate their religious holidays.
Watch the condensed “Seinfeld” episode that introduced the holiday, posted online by John Doe: