Federal court rules Indiana can recognize Good Friday as state holiday

Thursday, July 16, 1998

For many Christians, Good Friday is a day for solemn religious observance. For Indiana state lawmakers, it's an opportunity to grant state employees a lengthy spring break.

At least that is what state lawyers argued in support of a state law recognizing the day as a legal holiday. Before U.S. District Court Judge Sue Shields, the state lawyers rebuffed claims from a taxpayer that the law subverted the establishment clause of the First Amendment. They argued the law was enacted merely to save money and give state employees some time off.

Shields agreed and upheld the law July 14, concluding that the state had a valid secular reason for enacting it and that “Good Friday is a logical choice for a spring holiday, because some state employees undoubtedly would seek to take the day off because their children and/or spouses have a school holiday or a day off work.”

Shields noted that only one other state — Hawaii — has had its Good Friday closing law upheld by federal court as a secular holiday. But at least 12 other states have laws recognizing Good Friday as a public school or state holiday.

Christians believe Jesus is the son of God and that he was crucified on a Friday in spring and that he arose from the dead the following Sunday. Many Christians commemorate Good Friday, often by fasting and solemn prayer. In 1991, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a Hawaii Good Friday closing law partly because it had become secularized. In Cammack v. Waihee, the court ruled that Good Friday was the first day of a three-day weekend devoted to shopping and recreational activities.

Russell Bridenbaugh, a Bloomington, Ind., resident, sued the state in U.S. District Court alleging the state holiday law violated the separation of church and state. Represented by the Indiana Civil Liberties Union, Bridenbaugh argued before the court that the law established Christianity as a state religion and gave an appearance of state approval of religion over non-religion.

John Crull, executive director of the ICLU, said an appeal would be filed.

“The decision is probably one of those that won't please anyone,” Crull said. “Obviously we don't like it because of the First Amendment implications. I can't imagine, however, that many Christians or evangelical Christians are going to be pleased with the argument made by the state that one of their most holy days is actually devoid of specific religious significance.”

Shields conceded that the closing of state government offices on Good Friday “undisputedly makes it easy for Christian state employees who wish to attend religious ceremonies on that day or otherwise observe what is a significant Christian religious holiday.” Nonetheless, the judge ruled that the law did not run afoul of the establishment clause because the state had a “secular justification for scheduling the 'spring holiday' on Good Friday, a Christian holiday, rather than on another Friday or Monday during the spring.”

Daniel Conkle, a constitutional scholar and law professor at Indiana University, said that the district court's decision appears to counter a decision by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals that invalidated an Illinois law recognizing Good Friday as a public school holiday.

“It is a hard claim to make that Good Friday is anything other than a religious holiday,” Conkle said. “The attempt to deal with a religiously motivated holiday is difficult to do and the district court attempts to do that by ruling that many public schools and private employers in the state recognize the Good Friday holiday, so the state's doing likewise can be seen as an accommodation to those state employees whose children are out of school. Whether the reasoning actually fits with the circuit's appeals court is another case.”

The 7th Circuit, which includes Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin, ruled in 1995 that Illinois' recognition of public school holiday for Good Friday amounted to a state promotion of Christianity.

In striking down the Illinois law, federal appeals court Judge Richard Posner noted that unlike Christmas, Thanksgiving and to some extent Easter, Good Friday had not been secularized in Illinois.

“Good Friday, however, is not a secular holiday anywhere in the United States (with the possible exception of Hawaii),” Posner wrote in Metzl v. Leininger. “This is not merely our impression. It is the unanimous view of the theologians of diverse faiths who submitted affidavits in the district court. Christmas and Thanksgiving have accreted secular rituals, such as shopping, and eating turkey with cranberry sauce, that most Americans, regardless of their religious faith or lack thereof, participate in.

“Good Friday has accreted no secular rituals,” said Posner. “That should come as no surprise. Good Friday commemorates the execution of the Christian Messiah. It is a day of solemn religious observance, and nothing else, for believing Christians, and no one else. Unitarians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists — there is nothing in Good Friday for them, as there is in the other holidays we have mentioned despite the Christian origin of those holidays.”

Posner thus dismissed Illinois lawyers' arguments that the Good Friday closing law was implemented merely to save money by allowing public schools to close on a day few teachers and students are expected to attend. In part, Posner did not buy the argument because when the law was enacted in 1941, the state's governor proclaimed the day to be “a day charged with special meaning to multitudes throughout the Christian world” and that the Legislature had “lately given statutory recognition” to the religious day.

Instead Posner ruled that Illinois “has accorded special recognition to Christianity beyond anything that has been shown to be necessary to accommodate the religious needs of the Christian majority.”

Shields, the district court judge, however, found that Indiana had “met its burden” in proving the Good Friday law was enacted for secular reasons that would be consistent with the Metzl decision. Shields pointed to passages from Posner's decision that suggest the Illinois law might have been treated differently had the state announced that “public schools shall be closed on the Friday before Easter in order to give students and teachers a three-day spring weekend, rather than to commemorate the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.”

In one such passage, Posner wrote, “Illinois might have argued that the contemporary purpose of the Good Friday public school closing law is to provide a long spring weekend, Good Friday being chosen rather than a different Friday in the spring, or a Monday, because many students and teachers would stay away from school anyway on Good Friday even if school were open.”

ICLU Director Crull said Shields' decision confuses the separation of church and state principle. He said he doubted the state's ability to prove on appeal that Good Friday is simply a logical day to choose when creating a long spring break for state employees.

“The district court's opinion seems to double back on itself,” Crull said in pointing to passages from Shields' ruling that in 1997 only 30% of the public schools were closed on Good Friday. Shields, moreover, noted that a survey showed that only 44% of the employers in the state's east central region denoted Good Friday as a holiday for their employees.