Federal appeals court upholds Kentucky Good Friday holiday

Tuesday, April 20, 1999

A county in Kentucky can continue to close government offices every year on Good Friday without endorsing Christianity, a federal appeals court has ruled.

Three years ago, citizens in Kenton County sued officials for closing government offices for Good Friday and posting in the courthouse signs that declared them closed for that observance. Represented by Scott Greenwood, a Cincinnati-based First Amendment attorney, the citizens argued that the Good Friday closing, along with the signs, violated the separation of church and state. In 1997, a federal judge declared the signs unconstitutional and ordered their removal, but ruled that the closure was permissible.

The federal judge ruled that reasonable observers could not view the closure of county offices on Good Friday as an endorsement of religion. Moreover, the judge said that the county had been shutting offices for years on that day to provide a “spring holiday.”

Yesterday, a panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 in favor of upholding the federal judge's ruling. In Granzeier v. Middleton, Circuit Judge Danny J. Boggs, writing for the majority, said that Kenton County officials offered evidence that Good Friday had become secularized.

“Many school children are on Spring vacation the following week, and many Kentucky families start their vacations early, on Friday,” Boggs wrote. “Traffic statistics show that highway volume is very high on Good Friday. Courts and government offices do not expect much activity from the public, and the courts worry about the availability of jurors. Furthermore, the policymakers who set the holiday schedules testified that their goal was to provide a break for their employees at that time of the year, conveniently scheduled on a day of light activity and proximate to many families' vacations.”

Boggs said that the citizens had put forth no evidence to suggest that Kenton County officials had no secular purpose in setting up the spring holiday, or that the closing of the office would prompt observers to believe the county was endorsing religion.

“In short, so long as the finding can be made that there is a significant secular reason for closing on any particular date, a finding that the district judge made in this case and did not err in so finding, the fact that the closing is also convenient for persons of a particular faith does not render the closing unconstitutional,” Boggs wrote.

Greenwood said that his clients had not decided whether to seek a review of the decision by the entire 6th Circuit.

“I'm very disappointed and very disturbed because the majority opinion is not faithful to the establishment clause,” Greenwood said. “The court's opinion provides a road map for government bodies to celebrate religious holidays under the sham of a spring break. The decision diminishes the true meanings of religious holidays.”

In a dissenting opinion, Judge Karen Nelson Moore chided Boggs for suggesting in his majority opinion that the closing of Kenton County offices was related to vacation and travel plans.

“Closing to accommodate travel that is generated by other equally unconstitutional governmental observances of the Good Friday holiday does not constitute a legitimate secular purpose,” Moore wrote. “If it did, a state government could observe any religious holiday without violating the secular purpose test, if it closed schools and offices throughout the state and enough citizens took advantage of the holiday to travel.”

Moore also questioned the majority's conclusion that reasonable observers could not see the closing as an endorsement of religion.

“In the majority's view, the message transmitted is one of local government officials choosing a holiday date that is convenient for employees and others, while minimizing the religious significance of the holiday,” Moore wrote. “I believe, on the other hand, that a reasonable observer would discern state and local government and school officials agreeing to close on a date that has purely Western Christian significance and, thus, would perceive widespread governmental endorsement of religion.”