Group to mount another challenge to Hawaii’s Good Friday law

Wednesday, April 14, 1999

A civil rights group in Hawaii is vowing to challenge the state's law making the Christian observance of Good Friday a day off for state workers.

The Hawaii Citizens for Separation of Church and State has obtained an attorney and announced they would file a federal lawsuit against the state law before the end of the month.

Mitch Kahle, the group's president, said that the governor and the attorney general had been notified of the legal challenge.

“Good Friday is a purely religious holiday with no secular purpose whatsoever,” Kahle said. “And unlike other state holidays, the calendar schedule for Good Friday changes annually based on a lunar calendar to synchronize with Easter Sunday.”

Besides Hawaii at least 12 other states have laws recognizing Good Friday as a state holiday. Kentucky's law is currently being challenged in federal court and laws in Wisconsin and Illinois have been invalidated as violations of the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

The Hawaii law, enacted in 1941 before its statehood, has been challenged before. In 1991 the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court decision in favor of the law. The 9th Circuit majority upheld the law saying it had secular purposes – to provide an extended spring holiday for workers. Judge Dorothy W. Nelson, however, dissented in Cammack v. Waihee, saying that “by declaring Good Friday a holiday, the state places its imprimatur on both the Christian rites and practices observed on that day and to Western Christianity in general.”

Kahle said the new challenge would center on the name of the state holiday and that it is always scheduled the Friday before Easter. According to Kahle, the state law would “lead a reasonable observer to conclude that the state of Hawaii favors Christianity over other religions and personal philosophies.”

Kahle said most Hawaii residents “follow religions or personal philosophies other than Christianity,” and that the state's “exclusive recognition of Good Friday demonstrates a clear government favoritism for the Christian religion.”

Last year a federal court in Indiana upheld the state's Good Friday law, saying it made “a logical choice for a spring holiday, because some state employees would seek to take the day off because their children and/or spouses have a school holiday or day off work.”

That decision, however, remains under a cloud of uncertainty because of a 1995 decision by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The 7th Circuit comprises Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana.

In Metzl v. Leininger, the 7th Circuit declared that an Illinois state law anointing Good Friday as a public school holiday was unconstitutional. Chief Judge Richard Posner concluded that Good Friday is a day of religious observance that has not become secularized like Christmas or Thanksgiving.

“Good Friday has accreted no secular rituals,” Posner wrote. “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.”