Federal appeals court upholds Indiana’s Good Friday law

Monday, July 26, 1999

A federal appeals court has ruled that Indiana's Good Friday holiday has “absolutely no religious significance” and, therefore, doesn't violate the First Amendment's establishment clause forbidding government advancement of religion.

“To Indiana, Good Friday is nothing but a Friday falling in the middle of the long vacationless spring — a day which employees should take off to rejuvenate themselves,” the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals wrote in its July 21 decision. “This contrasts sharply with other legal holidays such as Martin Luther King Jr. Day where the government not only gives the day off, but endorses Martin Luther King Jr.'s philosophies and principles.”

Indiana has recognized Good Friday as a legal holiday since 1941. State officials argue that the day merely provides employees with a much-needed break and a three-day weekend for shopping and recreational activities.

But Russell Bridenbaugh of Bloomington, Ind., says the legal holiday amounts to state endorsement of Christianity. He sued the state in federal court, claiming that the law violates the separation of church and state.

The Indiana Civil Liberties Union has been representing Bridenbaugh in this case, Bridenbaugh v. O'Bannon. Bridenbaugh sued Gov. Frank O'Bannon in his official capacity.

Federal courts have upheld two other states' laws recognizing Good Friday as a state holiday. In 1991, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a 50-year-old Hawaii law. Last year, a federal judge in Kentucky ruled that such a law was permissible because government offices had been closed on that day for years and employees often referred to the day off as a “spring holiday.”

At least 11 other states have laws recognizing the day as a public school or state holiday.

For Christians, Good Friday commemorates the death of Jesus Christ, whom they believe to be the son of God. The observed date varies from year to year but always falls on the Friday before Easter, the day Christians believe Jesus arose from the dead.

In his suit, Bridenbaugh argued that the holiday advanced religion because it made it easier for Christians to practice their faith.

The 7th Circuit wrote: “It is true that by giving a holiday on Good Friday, it is easier for those who wish to attend religious services to do so. But that is potentially true of every legal holiday. For instance, giving workers a holiday on Thanksgiving and Christmas, employees may more easily participate in religious services.”

The court cited an establishment-clause test established by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1971 case Lemon v. Kurtzman. In that case, the high court said that a law doesn't run afoul of the establishment clause if it has a secular purpose; doesn't advance religion and doesn't foster an entanglement with religion.

The court said the Indiana law passed all three prongs of the Lemon test.

The decision surprised some because it came from the same court that in 1995 struck down an Illinois law granting public school students the day off on Good Friday. In Metzl v. Leininger, the court said that unlike Christmas and Thanksgiving, Good Friday had not become secularized in Illinois.

But the court said that Indiana, unlike Illinois in Metzl, demonstrated several secular justifications for a holiday on Good Friday.

Indiana Attorney General Jeff Modisett praised the decision, saying he was pleased that the court recognized the state's secular reasoning for making Good Friday a state holiday.

“Offering Good Friday as a legal holiday for state employees in the spring allows a deviation from the normal work week and bolsters employee efficiency,” Modisett said in a faxed statement. “While the state does not actively participate in either the religious or secular aspects of Easter or Good Friday, it also should not discourage state employees from engaging in their own activities of faith on their days off.”

John Crull, executive director of the ICLU, did not return calls.