1. Religion & Spirituality

Granzeier v. Middleton (1999)

Government Observance of Religious Holidays: Good Friday as a State Holiday

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Can the government take a religious holiday and make an official state holiday out of it? Is it an establishment of religion when a religious holy day becomes an official state holiday? Good Friday is a Christian Holy Day which many Christians would surely like to have off, but does that mean that governments should grant it official recognition over and above the holy days of other religions?


Background Information

In November 1995, courts in the Kenton County Courthouse and Administration Building adopted holiday closing schedules for 1996 which included Good Friday, April 5, 1996, as a date when the courts would be closed. In early April 1996, George Neack, the Deputy Judge Executive of Kenton County made signs with an image of the Crucifixion to announce that the building would be closed "for observance of Good Friday."

Michael J. Granzeier, Michelle Blankenship, and Heidi B. Sahrbacker filed suit against George Neack as well as various other judges and officials who all "exercised control over the Courthouse," contending that both the signs and the closings violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment because they tended to promote Christianity over other religions.

The defendants admitted that the signs were a violation and promised never to posting anything like that again, a decision which the district court agreed with. The district court did not, however, agree with the rest of the claims of the plaintiffs and ruled against them; they appealed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Court Decision

With Circuit Judge Boggs writing the majority opinion, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the district court in all respects. First, the Court accepted that the courts had a valid secular purpose for closing on that day:

Defendants presented credible evidence that Good Friday has become a day with secular effects in Northern Kentucky. Many school children are on Spring vacation the following week, and many Kentucky families start their vacations early, on Friday. Traffic statistics show that highway volume is very high on Good Friday. Courts and government offices do not expect much activity from the public, and the courts worry about the availability of jurors. Furthermore, the policymakers who set the holiday schedules testified that their goal was to provide a break for their employees at that time of year, conveniently scheduled on a day of light activity and proximate to many families' vacations.

The Court then further ruled that a reasonable observer would not conclude that the closings were made for he purpose of endorsing Christianity:

...holidays are established for the convenience of the citizens, and that convenience often is caused by individual motivations that may be a mix of secular and religious. ...A reasonable person who knew that many people in private and other public employment in the community had the day off and made plans to travel, and that the Courthouse had been closed on Good Friday for many years, would not think that the closing was an endorsement of religion absent an explicit endorsement such as the sign involved in this case. Because Defendants have been enjoined from future explicit endorsements, future closings will not make a reasonable person think that Defendants were endorsing religion.


In his dissent, Judge Moore argued that the mere existence of a secular purpose was not sufficient to overcome a dominating religious purpose, a principle articulated by the Supreme Court in the case of Lynch v. Donnelly. Moreover, he also argued that the existence of a sound secular purpose had simply not been demonstrated - accommodating the travel plans of people who have time off because of other unconstitutional governmental observances of Good Friday does not render further office closings secular.

Moreover, Moore disagreed with the majority over the nature and scope of the effects this closing might have on observers:

In the majority's view, the message transmitted is one of local government officials choosing a holiday date that is convenient for employees and others, while minimizing the religious significance of the holiday. I believe, on the other hand, that a reasonable observer ...would discern state and local government and school officials agreeing to close on a date that has purely Western Christian significance and, thus, would perceive widespread governmental endorsement of religion. In my view, the reasonable observer would not conclude that convenience dictated the selection of Good Friday as a uniform spring holiday because she would realize that any given Friday or Monday in March or April would serve as well.

Significance

As with other cases on this topic, the decision focused upon the importance of the existence of some secular purpose in order for governmental observances of Good Friday (or any other religious holy day) to qualify as constitutional rather than endorsements of some particular religion. The majority here held that an accommodation of the travel plans of various workers and employees constituted a valid secular purpose.

Further Information

Good Friday & Easter
Good Friday is a Christian Holy Day which many Christians would surely like to have off from work or school, but does that mean that governments should grant it official recognition over and above the holy days of other religions?


Back To: Court Decisions on Religious Liberty (main page)

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