Federal judge won’t play Grinch by declaring Christmas holiday unconstitutional

Wednesday, December 8, 1999

Editor's note: On Dec. 20, 2000, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court decision.

A federal judge in Cincinnati has said humbug to a lawsuit that sought to
declare unconstitutional the federal law making Christmas a national

Last year, Richard Ganulin, a Cincinnati attorney, brought a federal lawsuit
challenging the statute that declares Christmas a legal, public holiday and
gives federal workers a paid day off. Ganulin argued that federal recognition of
Christmas, which he asserted is a time for Christians to celebrate the birth of
their Messiah, violated the First Amendment's establishment clause.

Shortly after Ganulin filed his lawsuit, three federal employees, represented
by the nonprofit, religious-liberty group the Becket Fund, filed a motion
seeking its dismissal.

On Dec. 6, U.S. District Judge Susan J. Dlott ruled in the Becket Fund's
favor and dismissed the lawsuit. Dlott preceded her opinion with a nine-stanza poem influenced by Dr. Seuss How the Grinch Stole
. It read, in part:

The court will address
Plaintiff's seasonal confusion
Erroneously believing Christmas
Merely a religious intrusion.

Whatever the reason
Constitutional or other
Christmas is not
An act of Big Brother!

An extra day off
Is hardly high treason
It may be spent as you wish
Regardless of reason.

Dlott did not cite Seuss or any other Christmas fable in the body of her
opinion, which included several references to Supreme Court decisions on
government recognition of religion. The judge concluded, after discussing
federal court precedent, that a “reasonable observer” could not construe the
federal Christmas holiday as an unconstitutional government endorsement of

Ganulin had argued before the court that federal recognition of Christmas was
intended to and in fact — did — promote Christianity. Dlott, however, said that
courts could “accept the religious origins of the Christmas holiday and still
conclude that the government is merely acknowledging the secular aspects of
Christmas by declaring Christmas to be a legal holiday.”

Citing high court decisions from 1984 and 1989, Dlott noted that Christmas
has long been recognized by government officials, largely for secular reasons.
In the high court's 1984 decision in Lynch v. Donnelly, Justice Sandra
Day O'Connor said that Christmas “has very strong secular components and
traditions.” Justice Harry Blackmun, writing for the majority in the 1989
Allegheny County v. ACLU decision, referred to Christmas as a winter
holiday that “has attained a secular status in our society.”

Blackmun continued that “government may acknowledge Christmas as a cultural
phenomenon, but under the First Amendment it may not observe it as a Christian
holy day by suggesting that people praise God for the birth of Jesus.”

Dlott concluded that by “giving federal employees a paid vacation day on
Christmas, the government is doing no more than recognizing the cultural
significance of the holiday.” She called it “inaccurate” to argue, as Ganulin
also did, that federal recognition of Christmas amounted to an unconstitutional
church-state entanglement.

“The government's role is limited to declaring December 25th to be a legal
public holiday,” Dlott wrote in Ganulin v. U.S. “How federal employees
and other citizens choose to observe the holiday is their own concern. The
government has no right to or interest in monitoring its citizens to determine
if they engage in religious celebrations on Christmas.”

Kevin J. Hasson, president and general counsel of the Becket Fund, said that Dlott's ruling was important because it recognized that
government could acknowledge the role religion plays in Christmas without
subverting the establishment clause.

“This decision is not just a victory for the Christmas holiday,” Hasson said.
“It's a victory for the place of religion in American culture. You can't weed
religion out of the culture without uprooting the whole culture in the

A call placed to Ganulin was not returned. He did,
however, tell The Cincinnati Enquirer that he would appeal Dlott's