Good Friday holiday in Kentucky challenged in federal appeals court

Tuesday, December 15, 1998

Some citizens in a Kentucky county aren’t happy that county offices are closed on Good Friday.

They have asked a federal appeals court to overturn a district court decision that said it was OK to close Kenton County courts and administrative offices that day.

In 1996 three Covington, Ky., citizens, represented by Scott Greenwood, a Cincinnati-based First Amendment attorney, sued Kenton County officials over the Good Friday closings. They argued that the county closure was done in observance of Christianity and thus violated the separation of church and state. The citizens also challenged the signs posted inside the courthouse — which declared the offices closed “for observance of Good Friday” and included a picture of a crucifix.

Early last year, U.S. District Judge William O. Bertelsman ordered county officials to remove the signs, saying they were perceived as “a government endorsement of the Christian religion.” Bertelsman, however, ruled that closure was permissible, primarily because the county had been closing its offices for years on that day and because officials had started referring to the day off as a “spring holiday.”

Bertelsman concluded that a “reasonable observer” could not construe the county closure of offices as an endorsement of Good Friday, a day on which many Christians fast and pray.

“The resolutions and orders have all been amended to merely state that the courthouse will close this year on a given date,” Bertelsman wrote. “The signs will also so state. In short, the officials have done almost everything they can to disclaim any intent to endorse religion. This court concludes that, from the perspective of the observer informed of all these facts, the courthouse closing does not appear to endorse the Christian religion.”

Before a three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last week, Greenwood argued that calling the day off a spring holiday did not change the religious meaning of Good Friday. The 6th Circuit includes Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee.

Greenwood noted that the county’s original notice of the day included an acknowledgment of its religious significance. “The sign showed the purpose of the closing,” he said. “The county offices were closed in observance of an explicit religious holiday, which has no secular underpinnings.”

Attorneys for the county, however, argued that Good Friday does have a secular purpose. Rita Ferguson, Kenton County attorney, argued that the day was the start of a spring break that “everyone wants.”

In July a federal judge in the 7th U.S. Circuit, which includes Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin, ruled that an Indiana law granting state employees Good Friday off did not subvert the establishment clause, partly because the state had argued the day off was merely a spring break for its workers. That decision, however, conflicted with a 1995 7th Circuit Court of Appeals decision that invalidated Illinois’ recognition of a public school holiday for Good Friday. In that case Judge Richard Posner concluded that Good Friday, unlike Christmas and Thanksgiving, had not become secularized.

“Good Friday has accreted no secular rituals,” Posner wrote in Metzl v. Leininger. “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 other holidays,” with Christian origins.

Greenwood argued before the 6th Circuit panel in Sahrbacker v. Middleton that Kenton County officials had intentionally drained Good Friday of its religious meaning.

“It is intellectually dishonest to suggest that the holiday is anything but religious,” Greenwood said. “The government has defended its closing practices by taking out all the religious meaning of Good Friday. The purpose of the closing laws is to funnel people into churches and honor Jesus and the effect of the closing is to send a message that non-Christians are not welcome.”

Greenwood said he hoped the panel would rule on the appeal before next year’s Good Friday, April 2.