No Easter Good Friday DustUp

Governmental deference to the Easter tradition causes separationists similar anxiety. In Monona, Wisconsin, for example, city officials made the audacious decision to close the public library and City Hall offices on Good Friday afternoon-partly because the library staff has a half-day off under their union contract. The library was only closed from noon to 3 P.M.-some Christians traditionally observe Jesus' crucifixion during this period-and City Hall was closed the entire afternoon. Monona Public Library Director John DeBacher said the library had been closed every Good Friday since he took the position in 1994 and that it was also closed on Easter Sunday in 2003 because of low patronage on previous Easters. FFRF threatened to file a formal protest with city officials to object to these closings.

FFRF's Annie Laurie Gaylor described the closings as "very disturbing" insofar as the foundation had prevailed in a 1996 court action to prevent public facilities from closing on Good Friday. "It's disturbing that a [teachers] union would allow this kind of thing to continue and circumvent the courts," said Gaylor, referring to the federal lawsuit the foundation brought against Wisconsin, challenging its Good Friday law, which stated: "On Good Friday the period from 11 A.M. to 3 P.M. shall uniformly be observed for the purpose of worship." In that case, Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Tommy G. Thompson (Governor of Wsconsin), the court held "Wisconsin's designation of Good Friday as a holiday... [is] in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution ... because the statutes have as their express purpose the promotion of Christian worship." Not all courts have ruled that way. In Bridenbaugh v. O'Bannon, (1999) the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that an Indiana statute recognizing Good Friday as a legal holiday for state employees did not violate the Establishment Clause. The court found that the state had shown the holiday also had a secular purpose. "It is logical for the State to choose that day as its spring holiday, as an accommodation to those state employees whose children are out of school and/or spouses are off work," the court said.

But a state law allegedly mandating observances statewide-if indeed it did-is quite different from a decision by local facilities, not even city-wide, to close on Easter. Indeed, in a case that may be more on point, Granzeier v. Middleton, decided on April 19, 1999, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held that reasonable observers would not view the closing of county offices in Kenton County, Kentucky, on Good Friday as an unconstitutional endorsement of Christianity. In its decision the court noted that "many of the details of our commonly observed calendar have religious roots The names of our days (in English) advert to deities of the Romans Yet no one has seriously, and certainly not successfully, contended that the Establishment Clause is offended by the use of those names, nor by the practice of closing public offices almost universally on Sunday (the day observed as holy by most Christians) and frequently on Saturday (the day observed by Jews and some Christians) to the exclusion of other days that may have similar significance for some religions. Nor is the Establishment Clause offended by the dating of government documents using a system computed from events based on the Christian religion, and apparently not even by the use in official proclamations of language reflecting the religious origins of that dating system." The court was precisely correct. Despite extreme separationist interpretations of the Establishment Clause, our society has always condonedsince the inception of this nation-a significant intermixture of church and state in the sense of official government deference to religious events, holidays, and even principles.

In any case, following the federal court's decision outlawing Good Friday as an official state holiday, one Wisconsin County, La Crosse, considered circumventing the court ruling simply by reinstating Good Friday as a paid holiday, but changing its name to "Spring Holiday" or "Friday before Easter." This concession was insufficient for the separationist FFRF. It didn't seem to matter that the people wanted to have a vacation during that period. As long as a hoped-for vacation happened to coincide with a religious holiday, it had to be opposed-even if the county was willing to dissociate the holiday, by name, from its religious connection.

FFRF's Gaylor admitted that the foundation has an ongoing battle with the Madison teachers union because its contract calls for the schools' spring break to occur during the Christian Holy Week-the week that includes Good Friday, Easter Sunday, and the following Monday." It apparently doesn't matter to Gaylor's group that this is a convenient week for vacationers to travel, especially with the Monday for driving. The overarching agenda, however strained, seems to be to divorce the state from any recognition of religion.

Indeed, a radio and television personality in Phoenix, Arizona, David Leibowitz-a self-styled strict separationist-in an op-ed for the Arizona Republic, told of being put off by Gaylor's "shrillness." "Funny," wrote Leibowitz, "how believing in a cause can work: You go merrily along, so certain, until you meet someone who agrees with you so completely. Then, his or her ridiculousness changes your mind. Consider yourself warned if you fancy yourself a strict separationist when it comes to matters of church and state, as well as a patriotic American made uncomfortable by 'under God' in the Pledge of Allegiance. I was, too, until a few days ago, when I spoke to Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-founder of the Freedom From Religion Foundation."

Official Good Friday observances have been attacked in other contexts as well. In Illinois, a public school teacher brought a civil rights lawsuit against the state superintendent of education, challenging the practice of making Good Friday a paid holiday. And Hawaii has faced strong opposition for its tradition of observing Good Friday as a paid legal holiday for all county and state employees.

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