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Government and Religious Holidays

Court Decisions on Religious Liberty

The latter part of the year in the United States is affectionately known as the "holiday season" and less affectionately known as the "silly season." This is the time of year when we experience a cluster of holidays - it starts off slowly enough with Halloween, then begins to pick up speed with Thanksgiving, and as we approach the end of the year, we are moving quickly with Christmas, Hannukah, Kwanzaa, New Year's, and sometimes even Ramadan.

This holiday season is, naturally enough, heavily structured with tradition - indeed, tradition is very much the lifeblood of any holiday. We have trick-or-treating during Halloween, family dinner during Thanksgiving, Christmas shopping for most of December, and of course the series of rancorous lawsuits.

Lawsuits? Yes, a relatively recent facet of the holiday season is the holiday lawsuit, where one aggrieved party objects to some aspect of the holidays being endorsed or supported by the government and asks to have it stopped, arguing that it is a violation of the separation of church and state. The government, citing the activity as a tradition (even if it's not that old), refuses to stop, and so the matter goes to court.

What is all of this about? What does it mean for you? Where does the separation of church and state really come into play here?

Florey v. Sioux Falls School District (1980)
Roger Florey, an atheist, filed suit against a local school district's holiday programs, claiming that singing of religious carols during Christmas concerts, like "Silent Night" and "O Come All Ye Faithful," were a violation of the separation of church and state.

Lynch v. Donnelly (1983)
The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the city of Pawtucket could continue to display a nativity scene as part of its Christmas display.

County of Allegheny v. ACLU Greater Pittsburgh Chapter (1989)
The Supreme Court ruled that while a creche display on public property was unconstitutional, a menorah display on another piece of public property was not.

Bridenbaugh v. O'Bannon (1993)
According to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, a government is permitted to give employees a religious holiday off as a paid vacation day, but only if the government can provide a legitimate secular purpose for choosing that day instead of any other day.

Clever v. Cherry Hill Township (1993)
How far can a public school go when including religious symbols in school functions? According to a New Jersey District Court, any religious symbols can be used, but only so long as they are part of a legitimate, secular education program.

Capitol Square Review Board v. Pinette (1995)
Supreme Court decision holding that an unattended cross erected by the KKK on public grounds would not give the impression of government endorsement and, hence, is not a violation of the separation of church and state.

Metzl v. Leininger (1995)
Andrea Metzl, an Illinois public school teacher, filed a lawsuit to prevent the state of Illinois from (among other things) using of public funds derived from taxes that she paid to pay teachers for the Good Friday holiday.

Bauchman v. West High School (1997)
Is it a violation of the separation of church and state to make students sing Christian songs in a public school choir? According to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, it isn't a violation - not even if the teacher involved uses his position to promote his religion.

Ganulin v. United States (1999)
Is it constitutional for the United States government to recognize Christmas as an official paid holiday? Richard Ganulin, an atheist lawyer, argued that it isn't and filed suit, but a U.S. District Court ruled against him.

ACLU v. Schundler (1999)
The Third Circuit Court of Appeals found that a city's crèche and menorah display was unconstitutional when it did not have any secular symbols with it, but it became constitutional when enough secular symbols were added to a new, modified display.

Granzeier v. Middleton (1999)
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?

Koenick v. Felton (1999)
Judith M. Koenick, a former public school teacher, filed suit against the Board of Education of Montgomery County, Maryland, challenging the constitutionality of a Maryland statute providing for public school holidays on the Friday before Easter through the Monday following.

Sechler v. State College Area School District (2000)
Jarrod Sechler, a "youth pastor" at a local Christian church, filed suit against the State College Area High School because their holiday program was insufficiently Christian for him. According to a U.S. District Court, the presence of non-Christian symbols did not advance either those religions or express hostility towards Christianity.

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