Attorney sues federal government over recognition of Christmas as national holiday

Friday, August 7, 1998

A Cincinnati attorney has filed a federal lawsuit arguing that the federal government's recognition of Christmas as a national holiday amounts to an endorsement of Christianity in violation of the First Amendment's establishment clause.

Christmas has been recognized as a national holiday for at least 100 years. Richard Ganulin, 46-year-old city attorney, said that after long thought and study he decided it was time for the judiciary to rule on whether the national holiday status given to Christmas runs afoul of the separation of church and state. Ganulin filed the federal lawsuit on Tuesday.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court has never ruled on Christmas' national holiday status, it has noted – as have many other federal courts — that government can offer official proclamations of thanksgiving or prayer and officially recognize religious holidays.

In part, federal courts have upheld government nods to Christmas celebrations because of its secular aspects. In 1984, the Supreme Court in Lynch v. Donnelly upheld the inclusion of a nativity scene, depicting the birth of Jesus Christ, in a city-owned display that also included Santa Claus, reindeer, and other plastic Christmas figures. The high court noted that history is replete with examples of official recognition of Christianity. Examples include the pledge of allegiance, the “In God We Trust” phrase found on coins, and religious paintings in state-run museums.

The court noted in Lynch that noncoercive government recognitions of religion were necessary to avoid “callous indifference” to the importance of religion in our culture.

Many federal courts have also noted that Christmas is celebrated by non-Christians and therefore government should be able to join in the celebration.

In 1995, a federal appeals court judge said making Christmas a national holiday did not amount to a violation of the establishment clause.

Federal appeals court judge Richard Posner wrote in Metzl v. Leininger that: “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 government measures to promote them, as by making them holidays or even by having the government itself celebrate them, have only a trivial effect in promoting religion.”

Ganulin, however, said the argument that the secular aspects of Christmas shield it from establishment clause scrutiny is “bogus.” He said “the secular dimensions should not remove the holiday from the scrutiny of the of the separation of church and state clause of the First Amendment.”

Ganulin also argued that the government's recognition of Christmas as a national holiday elevated the holiday above other holy days.

Christine Link, executive director of Ohio's American Civil Liberties Union, told the Cincinnati Post that she was doubtful of Ganulin's chances of success.