Good Riddance, Good Friday Law? (August 1995)

A Wisconsin statute mandating that four hours “shall uniformly be observed for the purpose of worship” on Good Friday will be challenged in a lawsuit the Freedom From Religion Foundation plans to file soon.

Section 895.20 Wis. Stats., dating to 1945, establishes as law that “On Good Friday the period from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. shall uniformly be observed for the purpose of worship.” A statute later adopted in 1957 provided that offices of state government shall be closed after noon on Good Friday “in lieu of the period specified in s. 895.20.”

Taxpayers subsidize the Good Friday holiday for state workers as the only half-day holiday mandated.

The legal complaint will allege that plaintiffs are injured by the impermissible advancement of religion caused by the establishment of Good Friday as a state holiday, by the expenditure of tax revenues for the paid Good Friday holiday and by the denial of access to state facilities and services on Good Friday.

While there have been other challenges of Good Friday statutes around the country, some successful and some not, the Wisconsin statute is particularly vulnerable since it uniquely mandates that all citizens must worship and observe the Christian holiday, which marks the legendary crucifixion of Jesus. Adding strength to the imminent challenge is a recent ruling, Metzl v. Leininger (No. 94-2563), by the federal appeals court in Chicago.

On June 19, 1995, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed a federal court ruling overturning legislation which declared Good Friday a school holiday in Illinois. The Illinois legislature in 1989 had rescinded a law declaring Good Friday a state holiday, but had retained it as a school holiday, closing all schools for the day and giving teachers paid leave. Federal judge Ann Claire Williams last year had ruled in favor of a legal challenge of this statute brought by Andrea Metzl, a public school teacher.

In the 2-1 decision upholding Williams in June, Chief Judge Posner, joined by Judge Cummings, wrote:

“Good Friday commemorates the execution of the Christian Messiah. It is a day of solemn religious observance, and nothing else, for believing Christians, and no one else. Unitarians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists–there is nothing in Good Friday for them. . .

“The state has accorded special recognition to Christianity beyond anything that has been shown to be necessary to accommodate the religious needs of the Christian majority. . . . The state law closing all public schools on Good Friday makes the burden of religious observance lighter on Christians than on the votaries of other religions. The Christian does not have to absent himself from school on a school day, and so perhaps have to incur the inconvenience of a make-up exam on a later day, as the observant Jew might have to do . . . . The First Amendment does not allow a state to make it easier for adherents of one faith to practice their religion than for adherents of another faith to practice their religion . . .”

Posner ended his decision with a resounding conclusion: “government shall not join, whether at Christmas or on Good Friday, in the commemoration of Christianity’s most solemn, most awesome, and most potent symbol: the Crucifixion.”

The Foundation lawsuit will seek a declaratory judgment that the Good Friday holiday violates the First Amendment and the Wisconsin Constitution. A permanent injunction prohibiting the State of Wisconsin from establishing Good Friday as a state holiday will be sought.

Five cases have been brought challenging Good Friday statutes. Three, including the Illinois lawsuit, have resulted in findings calling the Good Friday laws unconstitutional.

Good Friday is not a legal holiday in a majority of states.

Freedom From Religion Foundation