Atheist Fired for Not Dressing Up as Santa January 3, 2008

Atheist Fired for Not Dressing Up as Santa

Atheist Christopher Nolan got fired from a Wal-Mart in Maine because he didn’t want to dress up as Santa (and presumably take part in perpetuating that myth).

But the news reports make an interesting statement, and I’m not sure if it’s the fault of the reporters or Nolan himself. Since multiple reports say the same thing, I’m thinking it was Nolan:

Christopher Nolan, 27, claimed he was asked to dress as Santa last month at the Sanford Wal-Mart but would not, saying he was an atheist and didn’t believe in Christmas.

You don’t “believe in Christmas”?

Umm… hate to break it to you, but Christmas exists. Whether you celebrate it or not is a different story.

Anyway, he has since filed for discrimination with the Maine Human Rights Commission.

A more thorough report says this:

In his complaint, Nolan said he thought it was a joke when he was asked on Dec. 8 to fill in as the store Santa Claus at the Wal-Mart on Main Street. He said his co-workers were laughing.

Nolan, who described himself as an atheist who does not believe in Christmas, said he laughed as well and then declined. “I said, ‘Uh, no way,'” he said in an interview last month.

Nolan said he was surprised when his supervisor called him later to say he had an hour to change his mind. When Nolan again refused to don the Santa suit, he said, his boss brought him into his office and told him he was fired.

“He said, ‘We have to do an exit interview,'” said Nolan, who said he worked at the store for three years, most recently as a bicycle assembler.

That exit interview included these comments from the supervisor:

“Asked Chris several times to dress up as Santa Claus. Repeatly (sic) told me no and then said he would look for another job. Didn’t listen to me at all. Told him I would take him out of the system.”

I doubt they would have forced a Jew or Muslim to dress up as Santa…

A spokesperson for Wal-Mart won’t comment on the case, but added that the “facts as they’re described are not true.”

It also looks like Nolan has a lot of bureaucracy to go through:

The commission will assign an investigator to look into Nolan’s allegation. The investigator will then issue a report for the full commission, which will then vote whether there are reasonable grounds to conclude that Nolan was discriminated against. It can take up to two years for the commission to decide whether Nolan’s rights were violated.

After six months Nolan could also ask the commission for a “right-to-sue letter,” allowing him to take his case to a Maine superior court. At that point the commission would stop its investigation.

[tags]atheist, atheism, Santa[/tags]

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  • Thanks for turning the comments on Hemant!

    I was curious what people thought of the phrase “believe in”. My crappy dictionary doesn’t have an entry for it. From my ESL days in the deep past I seem to remember such things are known as “phrasal verbs”. (Like “turn up” “turn in” “turn over” and so on where it is hard to guess the whole meaning from the parts.) I think the phrase “believe in” causes some misunderstandings.

    I can think of three meanings right off the bat for “I believe in X”.

    1. I think X exists.
    2. I have a trust or confidence in X. (eg. I believe in America! Of course the person isn’t saying America exists, or I believe in you honey, said to a spouse or child.)
    3. I approve of X. (Usually used in the negative. Eg. I don’t believe in watching TV.)

    Maybe some usage overlaps with 2 and 3, and I bet Christopher Nolan was probably using meaning #3. I think misunderstandings might arise in mixing meanings 1 and the others.

    Can anyone think of other meanings for “believe in”? You can find usage examples through Google. It was interesting to search for (with quote marks) “don’t believe in watching” to see how people use it.

    Anyway, I try to avoid using “believe in” when having any discussion about topics such as evolution or God (or Christmas for that matter) since it will just muddy the water and it isn’t precise.

  • I was going to say something very similar NYCatheist’s comment above. That phrase “believe in” causes a lot of confusion because of its meanings. I have been asked if I believe in god (its existence) or if I believe in evolution (its veracity) in the same sentence. I also try to avoid using as much as possible.

    I agree that Nolan seems to have been expressing his disapproval or lack of support for Christmas.

    [edit: I posted a quote (that I initially intended to use) in the URI field by mistake. I can’t change it!]

  • dennis

    Some points to make;
    1. Did he accept holiday pay?
    2. Did he also refuse to stock the Christmas, Easter, Halloween, etc.. inventory or take part in duties related to these holidays.
    4. It only takes a little bit of common sense to find that this “situational atheist” has a sense of entitlement and wants to get a free ride. This will come out in the Human Rights investigation. But, by then it’s old news and we won’t hear about it. That wouldn’t be sensational journalism.
    4. I bet he has a history, documented in his employee performance files, of insubordination. But, they’re protected.
    5. He chose to work at a large company who serves the masses that mostly “believe in” Christmas. To sell to these people you have to associate with them, no matter what your belief system. If you don’t like that, then don’t choose to work for them. If I choose to work for a Church and they ask me to place a new cross on the wall and I refuse based on my beliefs, then I would be an idiot.
    Although, I’m not atheist, this guy gives atheism a bad name.

  • Renacier

    Honestly, what strikes me most about this is that he’s making a deal out of being fired from Wal-Mart. Yes, I understand the principle: he believes he was fired for religious (non) belief, they wouldn’t dare fire him for being minority or Jewish, travesty of justice, etc etc.

    Still, dude…Wal-Mart…

  • Craig

    As if Santa Claus had anything to do with religion anyway!

  • Claire

    this “situational atheist” has a sense of entitlement and wants to get a free ride.

    You don’t know that. Unless you have some source beyond what’s here? It could be that he just didn’t want to dress up in a costume and have (possibly shreiking and/or incontinent) small children in his lap. Or he’s sensitive about his overlarge Santa-like stomach.

    Seriously, is someone who works assembling bicycles (ie not working with people) your first choice to dress up as Santa? What part of his job description is that?

    It seems pretty clear to me that his boss railroaded him, for whatever reason, with the Santa thing as an excuse. You don’t fire a person inside of an hour for a little thing like that unless someone wants him gone.

    Of course, I don’t know that for sure either, but it fits the facts better.

  • Kat

    I sent this story to Hemant after my long time friend back in Maine sent it to me. I was curious how Hemant and his readers would see this story.

    Yes, it’s Walmart, but the reason he was fired, and it’s clearly written on his dismissal form, is because he refused to dress up as Santa.
    Would they have forced a Jew or Muslim to do this?
    Nolan worked in the stockroom building bicycles, not on the floor stocking shelves, not at a register ringing out customers, but in the stockroom.

    It doesn’t matter if he said he doesn’t believe in Christmas, he was a stockroom clerk who built bicycles. He was a known atheist at his place of employment, and was asked in front of his peers to play Santa and allow young children to sit on his lap. His peers laughed out loud when he was asked. His peers obviously knew he was atheist, and that asking him to wear the suit and let kids sit on his lap, was against what he believes or doesn’t believe in.

    He said no, not thinking it would get him fired. His dismissal papers were seen by the news reporter, and it states that this is the sole reason for his dismissal from Walmart.
    If they had many other reasons as some of you are assuming, they would have written them on the form.
    Anyone who has had an exit interview knows that all the reasons you are being fired are written on that paper. All of your past write ups are written on it. If you’ve ever been spoken to, written up for being 5 minutes late, the exit paper will state how many write ups the employee has had.
    Refusing to play Santa was the only reason written on it.

    As Hemant asked, would they have asked a Jew or Muslim employee to play Santa? If either of those said no, do you think they would have been fired for saying no?
    I doubt it.

    Dennis asks if he refused to work easter or halloween. That doesn’t even come close to dressing up as Santa and allowing children to sit on your lap.
    Working in a stockroom building bicycles with no customer interaction, does not even come close to donning a Santa suit.
    It doesn’t matter if the store caters to people who do believe in Santa, he didn’t, and was clearly and solely, fired for refusing to wear a suit that a Jew or Muslim employee would have never even been asked to wear, and certainly not fired for refusing.

  • As if Santa Claus had anything to do with religion anyway!


    Santa Claus is one of the good parts of Christmas, anyway. If it was up to me, everyone would be invited to celebrate Christmas as a secular holiday; but, I would de-emphasize consumerism and stress being with friends and family a lot more.

  • How ridiculous. Refusal to do the job that you were hired for is certainly grounds for dismissal. Take another example of supposedly anti-religious behaviour. Is it anti-religious to ask a Muslim to stack shelves with alcoholic drinks? You’re not asking them to drink them. Would it be considered a breech of contract if a vegetarian refused to stack the fresh meat section of a supermarket?

    As for asking a Jew or Muslim to dress as Santa I have to ask “Why not?”. They choose not to celebrate Christmas and presumably don’t believe that the celebrations hold any meaning other than rampant consumerism. Dressing in a red suit and pretending to like children isn’t the worst way to earn a living. It’s not as if you’re asking a them to demonstrate a toaster by cooking and eating grilled cheese and ham all day. That would be contradicting their beliefs.

    Having said that if a Jew, Muslim or atheist explained to me that they could not dress as Santa because it offended them and really wasn’t part of their job anyway then I’d consider choosing someone else in my employ. Similarly I’d probably allow the vegetarian to stock the fruit and veg section rather than the meat counter but that’s just people management and has little to do with religion.

    I’m curious though. If a pastafarian refused to work in a store except near the pasta and meatball section would that be grounds for dismissal?

    However in this case it seems that the employee is untrained in dealing with people as he worked building bikes in a stockroom. Asking someone to do a job that they are not trained in is certainly grounds for refusal.

  • It seems pretty clear to me that his boss railroaded him, for whatever reason, with the Santa thing as an excuse. You don’t fire a person inside of an hour for a little thing like that unless someone wants him gone

    I would guess he was targeted because he was outspoken in the part about his lack of belief. BUT I have trouble seeing how dressing up as Santa would be such a hardship for him, IF he really wanted to keep his job. I think both sides got into a staring match and neither one would back down. It is freaking Santa not a religious figure.

    His peers obviously knew he was atheist, and that asking him to wear the suit and let kids sit on his lap, was against what he believes or doesn’t believe in.

    Wearing a Santa suit is against his beliefs? Allowing children to sit on his lap is against his beliefs? What do these things have to do with a lack of belief in god? Should I turn in my atheist card because I wear a Santa cap and let children sit on me?

    I have a feeling this confrontation between him and the supervisor is about more than a Santa suit.

  • Dennis

    The point is; Only one side of the story is being told and it’s from the alleged victim. Someone would be a complete moron to beleive the whole story as is, without hearing the other side. By the way Christmas is originally a Pagan celebration of the Winter Solstice (Alignment of the Stars) and had nothing to do with a little baby Jesus’ birthday. Some sort of Christmas has been celebrated long before Jesus was born. People should study a bit of theology.

  • stogoe

    I read the line about “doesn’t believe in Christmas” as “doesn’t believe in [b]celebrating[/b] Christmas”. I think that’s the most accurate reading possible.

  • Forget about the religious angle for a moment. Is it OK to fire someone for not doing a job that isn’t a part of their job description? It sounds like the guy was hired to assemble bicycles. Would it be OK to ask him to:

    1. work the cash register. (OK, maybe?)
    2. pick up the bosses dry cleaning. (er… pushing it?)
    3. clean toilets?
    4. give his boss massages?

    What if a Walmart employee was a devout Christian but found the idea of dressing in a costume embarrassing, or maybe they didn’t like kids?

    There is a classic situation in movies and TV sitcoms where some character is forced to wear a silly costume for their job. (Like a hot dog or some promotional animal character.) Maybe some minimum wage high school student can’t say no to that without being fired, but what if you had a higher status?

    Where do we draw the line between specific job responsibilities you were hired for, and extra jobs that go beyond that?

    Maybe Nolan was embarrassed and/or hates kids and just used his atheism as an excuse. Who knows?

  • Dennis

    Duh, what’s in his job description has nothing to do with filing a human rights violation based on religious discrimination.

    Besides, Wal-mart is non-union and job descriptions have no legal weight in a non-contract/non-union employment.

  • Karen

    When it comes to private employers, they can fire employees at will as long as it doesn’t involve a protected class such as firing an employee for being too old, or not the “correct” ethnic group, or not the proper religion.

    However, this doesn’t sound like he was asked to perform a religious act or engage in a religious practice. It sounds to me like he was asked to do a reasonable (albeit unusual) job duty. Even if he wasn’t enthused about it, I doubt he has a case based on religious discrimination here.

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