Good Friday Closings

Every spring, the Foundation receives complaints from members who cannot access public libraries on that day, cannot pay water bills because municipal and county offices are closed, or who cannot access the courthouses or other valuable government services. Good Friday is a roving holiday—changing its date every year—and is a purely Christian holiday commemorating the legendary death of the Christian messiah. “It is a day of solemn religious observance, and nothing else, for believing Christians, and no one else.” Metzl v. Leininger, 57 F.3d 618, 620 (7th Cir. 1995). Only a minority of states have official Good Friday holidays, fortunately.

One of the Foundation’s favorite legal successes was striking down the Wisconsin statute that provided for a Good Friday holiday. The 1945 statute prescribed that “On Good Friday, the period from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. shall uniformly be observed for the purpose of worship.” It was later amended to include a requirement that state offices close at noon on Good Friday.

FFRF, along with state employees objecting to the practice, challenged the statute. In FFRF v. Thompson, a Wisconsin federal district court struck down the law as unconstitutional. Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Thompson, 920 F.Supp. 969 (W.D. Wis. 1996). The court held that the purpose of the Wisconsin legislature in designating Good Friday afternoon as a holiday was to promote Christianity and endorse religion. The court wrote “… the statute clearly poses a practical disadvantage vis-à-vis Christians to those of other religions who must use annual leave to attend religious events while Christians are afforded a state holiday for the purpose of attending Good Friday religious observances.” Id. at 974. It ultimately concluded that, “[this] statutory language promoting a specific religion is more than just evidence of an impermissible legislative purpose, it is a permanent public pronouncement in a prominent public place endorsing a particular religion.” Id. at 972. Seecourt order and decision. As a result of FFRF’s legal victory, the state of Wisconsin gives state workers a half-holiday to be used at personal discretion, and ensures that state offices stay open on Good Friday.

Good Friday statutes have been challenged in other federal and state courts across the country. Generally, in assessing the constitutionality of a Good Friday statute or closing, federal courts will consider whether the statute or closing has a secular legislative purpose; whether its principal or primary effect inhibits or advances religion and whether the statute fosters excessive government entanglement. Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 612-613 (1971). The focus of any Establishment Clause violation must be “whether its principal effect neither inhibits nor advances religion,” Id. and “whether the government is conveying a message that religion or a particular belief is favored or preferred.” County of Allegheny v. ACLU, 492 U.S. 573 (1989). As a result, the courts are divided on whether Good Friday as a legal holiday is in violation of the Establishment Clause.

A number of courts have found a Good Friday holiday or closing to be unconstitutional. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which encompasses Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana, decided that an Illinois statute closing schools on Good Friday was in violation of the Establishment Clause. See Metzl v. Leininger, 57 F.3d 618. The Court ruled that without a significant and non-pretextual secular justification to select Good Friday as an official public holiday, all that is left is an endorsement or advancement of religion. Id. at 623.

In addition to Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Thompson, (striking down a Wisconsin statute making Good Friday afternoon a legal holiday), statutes or government closings involving Good Friday were struck down in the following cases: Griswold Inn, Inc. v. State, 183 Conn. 552, 441 A.2d 16 (Conn. 1981) (Striking down a Connecticut statute which prohibited the sale of alcohol on Good Friday); and Mandel v. Hodges, 54 Cal.App.3d 596, (Cal. App. 1976) (declaring unconstitutional a governor’s order which closed state offices for a three hour period on Good Friday).

Unfortunately, several decisions have found constitutional the Good Friday holiday or public closings. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which previously struck down the Illinois Good Friday statute, upheld a similar law in Indiana using questionable logic. See Bridenbaugh v. O’Bannon, 185 F.3d 796 (7th Cir. 1999). The Seventh Circuit held that Indiana’s law allegedly had the secular purpose to “provide a spring holiday to state employees.” Id. at 799. Critics pointed out that Indiana state employees have far more paid holidays than workers in most states, and that it was a ruse to suggest, as the court did, that the secular purpose was to ensure that workers received a paid holiday between Martin Luther King Day and Memorial Day!

Other court decisions upholding Good Friday as a legal holiday include: Koenick v. Felton, 190 F.3d 259 (4th Cir. 1999) (upholding Maryland statute providing for a public school holiday on Good Friday and the Monday after Easter); Granzeier v. Middleton, 173 F.3d 568 (6th Cir. 1999) (upholding practice of a county court of closing on Good Friday); Cammack v. Waihee, 932 F.2d 765 (9th Cir. 1991), reh’g en banc denied, 944 E.2d 466 (9th Cir. 1991), cert. den., 505 U.S. 1219 (1992) (upholding statute making Good Friday a state holiday in Hawaii); Franks v. Niles, 29 Fair Emp. Prac. Cases (BNA) 1114 (N.D. Ohio 1982) (upholding a Good Friday holiday for public employees as the result of a collective bargaining agreement); Americans United for Separation of Church and State v. Kent County, 293 N.W.2d 723 (Mich. App. 1980) (upholding a Good Friday holiday for public employees as the result of a collective bargaining agreement); California School Employees Ass’n v. Sequoia Union High School District, 67 Cal. App. 3d 157(Cal. Dist. Ct. App. 1977) (upholding a Good Friday holiday for public employees as the result of a collective bargaining agreement).

The Foundation believes that no government office, public library or public school district should close for Good Friday. To do so clearly violates the First Amendment, which prohibits the state from making it easier for adherents of any specific faith, in this instance Christians, to practice their religion while adherents of other faiths must take vacation time to observe their own religious holidays. Equally unconstitutional, such state laws or mandated closings are an affront to nonbelievers as they amount to a government observance of one religion’s holy day—in this case a holiday to commemorate a religious event with no secular meaning. School districts, which always time spring break to encompass Good Friday, for instance, are sending a message that they favor and endorse Christianity over other religions, and religion over nonreligion. The fact that Good Friday any given year may occur on a date, which can vary by more than a month, shows the closings for it are not simply to provide a spring break. Spring break should fall at the same time every year—at the midpoint of the semester, and not be tied to Christian teachings.

The Foundation does encourage its members to object to these Good Friday holidays and closings. Below is a list of U.S. states and territories currently with Good Friday statutes:

North Carolina
North Dakota
U.S. Virgin Islands 

Written by Stephanie Schmitt, FFRF’s Legal Intern for 2009/2010, and Annie Laurie Gaylor

Last updated: 2/18/10


Freedom From Religion Foundation