Do state and local laws or policies which create holidays on Good Friday violate the separation of church and state? Is making Good Friday a public or school holiday is unconstitutional, or can there be a secular purpose behind making Good Friday an official holiday? Indeed, is Good Friday still a religious holiday anymore or has it become a secular holiday? Some Christians want government should to make Good Friday an official public holiday, but others are pushing back.
An Establishment of Religion?
Many argue that creating a public holiday out of a purely religious holy day — closing schools and/or government offices — amounts to an establishment of religion. Because Good Friday falls on a regular work day, making it a public holiday entails paying government employees just as if they were working. Businesses remain open and most people are expected to be at work, a real problem if their children are given a day off from school, further penalizing non-Christian parents.
Is it appropriate to spend taxpayer money to support what appears to be an endorsement of a religious holy day? Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Shintos, and many others do not receive a paid holiday to commemorate their religious holy days. If they want those days off, they have to take a personal or vacation day. Only Christians receive an extra paid day for their religion.
Some argue that making Good Friday a public holiday is appropriate when there is also an important secular purpose — for example, if so many Christians absent themselves on Good Friday anyway, there is little point in keeping schools and/or government offices open. In such a situation, non-Christians are supposed to believe that closing schools is only a matter of practicality because it is more wasteful to have classes or open offices when hardly anyone is around. This is a claim that wants for evidence, but even if true it would not necessarily justify spending taxpayer dollars on paying teachers and employees as if the schools were not closed. Why not an unpaid day off, thus eliminating a financial benefit available only to Christians?
Another possible secular purpose is to create a Spring Holiday around a long weekend to encourage shopping and recreation. That argument was made in Hawaii and accepted as the basis for the ruling in Cammack v. Waihee that Good Friday had become secularized and had acquired a secular purpose, so it was constitutional for the government to make it an official holiday.
Under this argument, Good Friday can be picked over any other Friday or any Monday in spring if it could be shown that many students would be absent from school anyway, thus making Good Friday a choice of convenience. Once again, though, supporters must demonstrate that there really would be enough absences on that day anyway — otherwise, there is no basis for choosing Good Friday over other days.
Another problem with picking Good Friday for a general school or public holiday is that it involves the government unnecessarily in a religious dispute between two different Christian traditions: Western (Roman Catholic, Protestant) and Eastern (Orthodox). Many don't realize that there are usually two Easters and two Good Fridays, Western and Eastern, because the western and eastern churches use two different calendars. Sometimes their holy days fall on the same date but usually they don't. If a government picks Good Friday as a "secular" holiday, and even if valid secular purposes can be articulated, it cannot avoid picking one tradition's Good Friday over the other's.
In Koenick v. Felton, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a public school holiday on Good Friday by arguing in part that because the school board obtained the date for Easter and Good Friday from a secular source there was therefore no entanglement in the dispute between Western and Eastern Christians over the dating of Easter. Such "reasoning" is nonsense because the secular calendar's source for when "Good Friday" falls is, ultimately, religious authorities.
If the calendar contains both Eastern and Western dates, then the government must choose the Western dates at the expense of the Eastern, communicating to all that the Western dates are preferable. If the calendar only offers the Western dates, then the government knowingly uses an incomplete and biased source, something which cannot excuse them from the consequences of their decision: telling society that the Western Christians' dates for Good Friday and Easter are preferred.
Other Religious Holy Days
How would Christians react if the situations were reversed — if the holy days of another religion were made into a public holiday while Christians had to take personal or vacation days to observe something like Good Friday? Many minority religions are increasing in size across the country and their influence on American society will also grow. Today they are so small that they have to acquiesce to the demands of Christians that Christianity receive privileged treatment, but that is slowly coming to an end.
One day, some regions of America will have so many Muslims or Hindus that the "secular purpose" argument currently used to defend a Good Friday holiday will require that the government create an official holiday to accommodate the high absences of Muslims or Hindus. If the government doesn't, then arguments that Good Friday holidays have a secular purpose would be revealed as a sham.
If, however, the government does create official holidays for Muslim or Hindu holy days while forcing Christians to take personal or vacation days for Good Friday or even Christmas, would Christians feel put upon? Would Christians object if schools were closed for a Hindu or Muslim holy day while their children had to get a special excuse to be absent on Good Friday? If the answer to either is "yes," then perhaps Christians shouldn't cause the same to happen to Muslims, Hindus, and adherents of other minority faiths today.
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, right?