Ohio school district sued over Jewish Holiday closings

Monday, August 30, 1999

An Ohio school board's decision to close classes on a couple of Jewish holidays has spurred a legal action charging it with violating church-state separation.

The board of the Sycamore Community School District near Cincinnati decided in 1998 to close schools on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, known as the High Holidays. Rosh Hashana marks the Jewish New Year; Yom Kippur is the day of atonement.

The state affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, however, says the school board's action subverts the establishment clause of the First Amendment. In a complaint filed in federal court on Aug. 25, the ACLU of Ohio seeks a declaration that the action is unconstitutional and a permanent injunction against closing school for religious reasons.

“Defendant's acts of favoring one religious denomination over others as described herein violates the doctrine of separation of church and state and constitutes an establishment of religion and the promotion of one religion over others, all in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment,” the ACLU's complaint states.

The ACLU further claims that the only reason the board closed schools was its “desire to favor Judaism over other religious faiths.”

School officials, however, argue the days were chosen because of low attendance.

“We have no interest in promoting any religion in the schools,” Superintendent Bruce Armstrong told The Cincinnati Enquirer. “We want to promote quality education, and that called for us to reschedule those days of high absenteeism.”

Courts in federal circuits near Ohio have recently ruled that public offices could be closed for religious holidays, provided the closings were prompted by secular reasons. In April a panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Granzeier v. Middleton that a Kentucky county could constitutionally close its offices on Good Friday, when Christians commemorate the death of their messiah.

Writing for the court majority, Judge Danny J. Boggs concluded that county officials had approved the closing solely because a lot of people take vacation during that time. “Traffic statistics show that highway volume is very high on Good Friday,” Boggs wrote. “Courts and government offices do not expect much activity from the public, and the courts worry about the availability of jurors. In short, so long as the finding can be made that there is a significant secular reason for closing on any particular date, the fact that the closing is also convenient for persons of a particular faith does not render the closing unconstitutional.”

In July a three-judge panel of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an Indiana law making Good Friday a state holiday. The panel found that Good Friday was recognized in Indiana for secular, not religious, reasons.

“Indiana does not celebrate the religious aspects of Good Friday; for Indiana, the holiday has absolutely no religious significance,” Judge Manion, wrote for the panel in Bridenbaugh v. O'Bannon. “To Indiana, Good Friday is nothing but a Friday falling in the middle of the long vacationless spring – a day which employees should take off to rejuvenate themselves.”