Days of Religious Observance as National or State Holidays

One question that has arisen on several occasions is whether the government can establish a day of religious observance as an official state or national holiday consistent with the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Some observers argue that to do so constitutes an unconstitutional establishment of the religion whose special day has been designated an official holiday. Courts have considered claims that declaring Good Friday or Christmas Day an official holiday is an unconstitutional establishment of religion. The courts are divided on the issue as it pertains to Good Friday, generally sustaining the constitutionality of the holiday if a secular purpose exists. By the same token, courts have uniformly concluded that declaring Christmas Day a government holiday poses no constitutional problem because of the secular nature of the day.

In 1995, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held that an Illinois state law maintaining Good Friday as a holiday on which schools must be closed violated the Establishment Clause (Metzl v. Leininger, 57 F. 3d 618, 7th Cir., 1995). The court noted that Good Friday is the only religious holiday on which schools must be closed in Illinois (schools are not required to close, for example, on Jewish holidays). Because Illinois law already permitted students to miss school on religious holidays, the court concluded that the special accommodation for Good Friday served no secular purpose and thus violated the Establishment Clause. The court did note in dicta, however, that if the state had defended the holiday on the grounds that the schools would otherwise experience a high degree of absenteeism on that day, the case might have been decided differently.

A few other courts have also found that making Good Friday a state holiday violates the Establishment Clause when the purpose appears to be to promote Christian worship. For example, a federal district court in Wisconsin in Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Thompson, 920 F. Supp. 969 (W.D. Wisc., 1996), held that a Wisconsin statute providing that ‘‘[o]n Good Friday the period from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. shall uniformly be observed [as a state holiday] for the purpose of worship’’ violated the Establishment Clause. Similarly, a California state appellate court held unconstitutional a California governor’s order that state offices be closed from noon until 3:00 p.m. on Good Friday—the three most sacred hours of that religious holiday (Mandel v. Hodges, 127 Cal. Rptr. 244, 1976).

But other courts have rejected claims that establishing Good Friday as a state holiday violates the Establishment Clause when the decision is motivated by secular reasons. For example, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld the constitutionality of a Kentucky statute making Good Friday a state holiday on the grounds that the legislature acted in order to provide a holiday on the third busiest travel day of the year (Granzeier v. Middleton, 173 F. 3d 568, 6th Cir., 1999). Similarly, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit upheld a Maryland statute making Good Friday and the Monday after Easter Sunday school holidays on the grounds that the schools would otherwise have a high rate of absenteeism on those days (Koenick v. Felton, 190 F. 3d 259, 4th Cir., 1999). The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit upheld an Indiana law giving state employees a holiday on Good Friday when the state presented evidence that the purpose was to create a holiday during a time period when there would otherwise be four months without one (Bridenbaugh v. O’Bannon, 185 F.3d 796, 7th Cir., 1999).

Yet another circuit court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, found that a Hawaii statute declaring Good Friday a state holiday did not violate the Establishment Clause since, in the court’s view, Good Friday in Hawaii had become the first day of an annual three-day spring weekend devoted to shopping and recreational pursuits and that the establishment of that day as a holiday merely accommodated those secular activities (Cammack v. Waihee, 932 F.2d 765, 9th Cir., 1991). Finally, a federal district court in Ohio rejected a claim that giving municipal workers a holiday on Good Friday violated the Establishment Clause since the purpose of the holiday was to satisfy union demands, not to advance the religion of Christianity (Franks v. City of Niles, 29 Fair Empl. Prac. Cas. (BNA) 1114, N.D. Ohio, 1982).

On the other hand, courts are uniform in their conclusion that declaring Christmas Day a state holiday does not violate the Establishment Clause. Even the Seventh Circuit judges in Metzl v. Leininger (1995), who found the Illinois law making Good Friday a state holiday to violate the Establishment Clause, conceded that designating Christmas Day (and Thanksgiving Day) a state holiday did not offend the Constitution: ‘‘Some holidays that are religious, even sectarian, in origin, such as Christmas and Thanksgiving, have so far lost their religious connotation in the eyes of the general public . . . [that they] have only a trivial effect in promoting religion’’ (Metzl v. Leininger, 1995). Similarly, a federal district court judge in Ohio rejected a challenge to Christmas Day as a government holiday on the grounds that the day had become a secular holiday (Ganulin v. United States, 71 F. Supp. 2d 824, S.D. Ohio, 1999). Four justices of the U.S. Supreme Court in Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668 (1984), agreed that making Christmas Day a state holiday did not violate the Establishment Clause:

When government decides to recognize Christmas Day as a public holiday, it does no more than accommodate the calendar of public activities to the plain fact that many Americans will expect to spend time visiting with their families, attending religious ceremonies, and perhaps enjoying some respite from preholiday activities. The Free Exercise Clause, of course, does not necessarily compel the government to provide this accommodation, but neither is the Establishment Clause offended by such a step.

State statutes that prohibit the sale of intoxicating liquors on designated religious holidays have received limited judicial scrutiny. But in 1981, the Connecticut Supreme Court declared a state statute unconstitutional that prohibited the sale of alcohol on Good Friday, holding that such law constituted an establishment of the Christian religion (Griswold Inn v. State, 183 Conn. 552, 1981).

DAVISON M. DOUGLAS

References and Further Reading

  • Brookman, Justin, The Constitutionality of the Good Friday Holiday, N.Y.U. L. Rev. 73 (1998): 193.
  • Hartenstein, John M., A Christmas Issue: Christian Holiday Celebration in the Public Elementary Schools is an Establishment of Religion, Cal. L. Rev. 80 (1992): 981.
  • Kleinfelder, Megan E., Good Friday, Just Another Spring Holiday? U. Cinn. L. Rev. 69 (2000): 329.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Bridenbaugh v. O’Bannon, 185 F.3d 796 (7th Cir. 1999)
  • Cammack v. Waihee, 932 F.2d 765 (9th Cir. 1991)
  • Franks v. City of Niles, 29 Fair Empl. Prac. Cas. (BNA) 1114 (N.D. Ohio 1982)
  • Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Thompson, 920 F. Supp. 969 (W.D. Wisc. 1996)
  • Ganulin v. United States, 71 F. Supp. 2d 824 (S.D. Ohio 1999)
  • Granzeier v. Middleton, 173 F. 3d 568 (6th Cir. 1999)
  • Griswold Inn v. State, 183 Conn. 552 (1981)
  • Koenick v. Felton, 190 F. 3d 259 (4th Cir. 1999)
  • Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668 (1984)
  • Mandel v. Hodges, 127 Cal. Rptr. 244 (1976)
  • Metzl v. Leininger, 57 F. 3d 618 (7th Cir. 1995)

See also Establishment Claus (I): History, Background, Framing; Sunday Closing Cases and Laws

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