Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Holiday formerly known as Good Friday

The Madison-based Freedom From Religion Foundation has sent a letter of complaint regarding the recognition of Good Friday as a campus holiday by fifteen of the state's sixteen technical college, apparently pursuant to a collective bargaining agreements with instructional staff. The FFRF argues that closing on Good Friday (not just calling the off day "Good Friday') is inconsistent with a 1996 decision of the Western District of Wisconsin invalidating a state law that mandated the closing of public facilities for the purpose of worship.

The prior decision seems distinguishable to me given the statute's explicit reference to closing for a religious purpose. It's hard, in light of that, not to see the statute as violating current Establishment Clause doctrines.

These cases tend to turn on some ascription (often fictional) of a religious or secular purpose to the state. FFRF will have to show that the recognition of the Good Friday holiday has a religious purpose or amounts to an endorsement of Christianity. It may well lose because a court will conjure some secular justification for recognition of the holiday, e.g, that the day also known as Good Friday has become a traditional opening to the spring vacation.

My own view is that there is no sense to this. Spinning some secular justification for what is a religious holiday is unseemly, at best, and disrespectful of the religious tradition in question, at worst. The colleges are recognizing that this is a day with religious significance for most of its employees and is responding to their desire to have that day off.

My own view is that this ought not to raise Establishment Clause concerns. While it may raise an issue regarding accommodation of the religious holidays of other faith traditions, it does not advance or endorse religion in a way that ought to be constitutionally prescribed. A non-Christian suffers some burden because a state facility is closed on a day when the majority is observing a religious holiday, e.g., annoyance at the unavailability of certain services or confirmation of one's minority status.

But this seems to me to be indistinguishable from the harm that religious adherents claim when the state, for secular reasons, acts in a way that is inconsistent with their beliefs and practices. It cannot be prevented in an even handed manner and we ought not to try.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

I thought the State is not supposed to be an obstacle to the free exercise of religion. Isn't there a difference between endorsing and accommodating?

yoSAMite said...

The FFRF seems to win on one of two fronts, in a Constantine type of way, combining the secular and religious thus minimizing the importance of the religious observation,

John Foust said...

I knew I should'a bought the program when I walked into the stadium. One game they're claiming the professor types are heathens, the next they're saying most of them are so pious they need Good Friday off for a little extra reflection.

Of course, for those of you playing at home and desirous of original source material, here's FFRF's own press release and January 16 letter and their summary of the 1996 decision.

In the PR it quotes Brent Smith, president of the Wisconsin Technical College System Board, saying that "15 out of the 16 technical colleges in the Wisconsin Technical College System are closed in observance of the Christian holy day, Good Friday, which is April 10 this year."

The Professor is claiming that this is significantly different than the situation in the 1996 decision that found unconstitutional our 1945 statute that said "On Good Friday, the period from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. shall uniformly be observed for the purpose of worship."

capper said...

The way the economy is going, both sides' arguments will be moot. Everyone will be working in a low pay service industry job and no one will be getting a holiday off.

Anonymous said...

Is not Christmas a religious holiday? Why are offices and others closed on Sundays? This is the American fabric. Are we going to wait before the whole nation is secular the likes of Europe who used to be Christian. Tell these anti-Christian folks to get a life. Let Christians be Christians. It is guaranteed by the Constitution. John HYland

Amy said...

If I remember correctly, when this stopped being a state holiday in the mid-90's, it was because Good Friday can't be stated as a specific calendar day without reference to religion - i.e., in reference to how Easter Sunday is calculated. And, so, state employees were given an additional 1/2 day of 'personal time' to take when they wish.

By contrast, the December days off can be stated in contracts as December 24 and December 25 - with no reference to the 'purpose' of the days.

For a school system, of any sort, I would imagine they have the freedom to choose when they offer a spring break/vacation period. But, I have to admit, I haven't read the full details of FFRF's complaint.

Anonymous said...

John Hyland--as long as you remember to let Jews be Jewish and all the other non-Christian religions practice their faith, too, as well as agnostics and athesists to choose to have faith or not.

Anonymous said...

anon 11:25 -

Do you have any examples that they haven't been allowed to freely worship without goverment being an obstacle?

Anonymous said...

Anon 11:31--I think Anon 11:25 is implying that Hyland states his view as "oh. . .the poor Christians are always so beat up upon". So in essence, I think Anon 11:25 was telling Hyland to get himself a life, too.

Anonymous said...

is not a religious thing folks. Everyone here missed the point. We have in our mist, the PSRP, the states most powerful union who represents the instructors at the technical colleges. Aside from this juicy little holiday they negotiate because our Govenor buys his votes that way, they have more holidays off than you and your kids will ever have combined. They negotiate these things at taxpayers expense. So it was suggested that perhaps they attempted to get another day off that shouldnt be acknowledged. In the meantime, review your tax bill and sleep better knowing each instructor earns 90K for a 38 hour workweek, and 3 days off a month with 12 holidays annually. Best way to spend taxpayers money and get votes...