Foundation Gains Second Good Friday Victory (April 1997)

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has won another round in its ongoing battle to separate church and state.

A Wisconsin county, whose supervisors had vowed they would never relinquish a publicly-observed Good Friday holy day, has capitulated. After months of divisive religious debate, procrastination and three formal votes to retain the official holy day, Ozaukee County supervisors finally voted 18-12 on March 5 to abandon their official Good Friday holy day. A “floating holiday” will take its place.

A settlement of the lawsuit, Freedom From Religion Foundation v Ozaukee County, Wisconsin, provides that Ozaukee County will pay the Foundation $8,500 in court costs and attorney’s fees.

Ozaukee County’s insurance company had informed the supervisors that if they chose to continue the lawsuit rather than settle, they would be responsible for their own legal costs, as well as the Foundation’s, in the likely event they were unsuccessful in court.

Federal Judge John Shabaz of Wisconsin’s Western District ruled last year that governmental observance of Good Friday as a state holiday and the expenditure of public funds to pay employees for the religious observance was an impermissible advancement of religion.

In opposing a change, Ozaukee County supervisors had made remarks such as, “Christ died on the cross for us, and I’m not going to turn my back on that,” and “How can I go home to my Polish wife and tell her I voted against God today?”

County supervisors were lobbied heavily on the issue. A Milwaukee television station owned by fundamentalist Christians urged its viewers to contact county supervisors. Its talk show featured the mayor of the county seat who favored keeping the holy day. More than 100 callers jammed the Ozaukee County Administration Center switchboard the day of the final vote.

Three or four local religious leaders appeared at the final hearing in support of separation of church and state and were credited in the local press with “convincing members to give up their holy war.”

Commented Anne Gaylor, “While we are always pleased to have support for church/state separation from any quarter, it was really the insurance company that carried the day. It was the prospect of paying thousands more without their insurer’s help that convinced a majority of the supervisors to vote the way they did.”

The new ordinance adopted by the supervisors provides that their personnel committee will name the “floating holiday” each year, which will be the same for all employees.

“I’m a bit skeptical,” Gaylor said. “There is no wording in the ordinance to prevent their naming Good Friday again, just calling it something else. But written into the settlement is the provision that our office is to be notified of their choice in advance each year for the next three years. So we can return to court in a timely fashion should that become necessary.”

Attorney Jeff Kassel represented the Foundation.

Freedom From Religion Foundation