Fifty-Year-Old “Good Friday” Law Struck Down (April 1996)

U.S. District Judge John Shabaz ruled on February 24 that Wisconsin’s Good Friday legal holiday is unconstitutional.

Shabaz agreed with the Freedom From Religion Foundation that the holiday violates the First Amendment by favoring Christianity over other religions or no religion.

The 1945 law mandated: “On Good Friday, the period from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. shall uniformly be observed for the purpose of worship.”

Shabaz wrote in a strongly-worded, 15-page decision that “The language of [the law] leaves absolutely no doubt that the purpose of the Wisconsin Legislature . . . was the promotion of religion.”

The law was later amended to require state offices to close at noon on Good Friday to observe the crucifixion of Jesus. Even without a religious purpose written into the law, Shabaz declared that the effect of giving state employees the paid holiday still endorses Christianity.

The Foundation filed suit on October 11, 1995, after the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in June, 1995, that an Illinois statute making Good Friday a school holiday was unconstitutional. That decision is binding in Wisconsin.

Plaintiffs included Foundation staff as well as state employees Richard A. Uttke, Samuel and Jennifer Essak who observe Jewish holidays on personal time, and Prof. Michael Hakeem, all Foundation members. The Foundation was represented by Jeffrey Kassel, who hailed the ruling as a “very strong decision,” leaving little “room for argument on appeal.”

A week before Shabaz announced his ruling, Wisconsin’s Attorney General James Doyle went public explaining why he refused to defend the Good Friday law. When Doyle wanted to settle the case, the Governor took it out of his jurisdiction, hiring outside counsel Ray Taffera, a former aide, at $135 an hour. Doyle had cited the 7th Circuit decision, in which Chief Judge Richard Posner ruled that “Good Friday . . . is not a secular holiday anywhere in the United States.

“Good Friday commemorates the execution of the Christian Messiah. It is a day of solemn religious observances, and nothing else, for believing Christians and no one else,” wrote Posner.

In an interview by Steven Walters of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Doyle said “it is really offensive to go before a court and argue that Good Friday is not a religious holiday.”

Yet that argument was advanced by Taffora, who argued that the holiday was nonreligious because some stores held “double-coupon” specials or took advantage of the holiday to promote Easter themes, such as “Wabbits” festivals.

Shabaz dismissed these arguments as “lame,” saying it is “offensive” to suggest that Christ’s crucifixion is celebrated “in the same fashion” as the alleged resurrection.

Several Wisconsin dailies commended the decision, criticizing Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson for fighting the challenge.

“Good Friday laws hard to defend,” editorialized the Green Bay Press-Gazette: “. . . the notion of paying government workers to go to church remains irksome.”

“Holy war on taxpayers” was the headline of an editorial in The Capital Times, the afternoon daily in Madison, Wisconsin, which accused Thompson of making a “self-serving raid on the treasury” and “squandering . . . tax dollars in order to pay a crony.”

“Thompson lost, taxpayers paid” was an editorial appearing in the Wisconsin State Journal: “Perhaps if the governor had to pay for his freelance legal crusades out of his own office budget, he would be somewhat less Quixotic and maybe even a little less political.”

The two Madison dailies also condemned Thompson for attacking the lawsuit in his recent “state of the state” address.

Thompson had complained that Wisconsin’s “values and traditions” are under “continual assault” by the Foundation:

“Right now, I am being sued because I defended the beauty of our Capitol rotunda with its Christmas tree and menorah. And the same people are suing me in an attempt to throw out our Good Friday holiday. If it means I have to go to court to defend the traditions that make us great, so be it. . . .”

Thompson spokesperson Kevin Keane told the State Journal:

“We knew this was going to be an uphill battle but the Good Friday law has been the will of the people for five decades and it was very much worth fighting to defend.

“For the Freedom From Religion group to only now attack the values we hold dear in this state is a slap in the face to the people of Wisconsin, and to make this decision in the first week of Lent is to slap the other check as well. The governor believes the problem with society is not too much religion, it’s a lack of religion.”

However, during a news conference shortly after the decision was announced, Thompson indicated an appeal was dubious. The decision was an obvious blow to Thompson, since he and Shabaz had been allies in the Wisconsin legislature. The State has 30 days to appeal.

“We have been floating euphorically ever since the decision was announced,” said Anne Gaylor, Foundation president and a plaintiff. “We owe special thanks to our Madison members who are state employees and who agreed to be plaintiffs–they were crucial to our case. And we are grateful to our attorney who was presented with this mountain of material by Gov. Thompson’s attorneys. Most of it was irrelevant, but it had to be dealt with, and Jeff dealt with it beautifully.”

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