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Ganulin v. United States (1999)

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Background Information

Richard Ganulin, a Jewish lawyer, filed suit on August 4, 1998 against the United States government, alleging that the law making Christmas Day a legal public holiday violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. On November 6, 1998, three federal employees were granted the status of "defendant-intervenors," seeking to have Ganulin's suit dismissed and the Christmas holiday retained.

The basis for Ganulin's complaint was, first, that Christmas Day is the time when Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, whom they believe to be their Messiah and, second, that on Christmas Day Christians celebrate the arrival of the Christian figure "Santa Claus." Because of this, Ganulin argued that the official adoption of Christmas as a national holiday constituted an endorsement and furtherance of Christianity and Christian beliefs.

Court Decision

On December 7, 1999, U.S. District Judge Susan Dlott ruled against Richard Ganulin, rejecting his claims that Christmas should be considered by the government a religious holiday and, hence, ineligible for official government recognition. She did accept Ganulin's premises about the basic religious nature of Christmas Day, but she reached a different conclusion, arguing that it has now become very secular in nature:

Courts have repeatedly recognized that the Christmas holiday has become largely secularized. ...By giving federal employees a paid vacation day on Christmas, the government is doing no more than recognizing the cultural significance of the holiday.

Significance

This decision follows a long line of precedents which have held that, so long as the government is able to articulate an acceptable secular purpose for its actions, it may adopt a fundamentally religious holiday as an official state holiday for all government employees. For accommodationists, this has been treated as a victory, establishing that such actions do not violate the separation of church and state and demonstrating that the government can and should accommodate religion.

However, is it really a victory? In what way do devout believers "win" when one of their most important religious holidays is declared by the government to be "largely secularized"? Shouldn't believers prefer that the government simply keep its nose out of their business and not pretend to have anything at all to say about their religious observances and holy celebrations?

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