Good Friday Is Not Just Another Day

Should the government observe religious holidays?

Some federal courts seem to think so. In March, the U.S. Supreme Court missed an opportunity to consider an Indiana case questioning the state's recognition of Good Friday, the day Christians mark the crucifixion of Jesus. This followed closely on the heels of a January announcement that the justices would not hear a challenge to a Maryland law that requires public schools to close on Good Friday.

While the justices have been increasingly unwilling of late to consider cases such as these, their reluctance is highly unfortunate. This is an area of church-state law that needs review.

The Indiana case was brought in 1997 by Russell Bridenbaugh, who argued that official recognition of Good Friday violates the First Amendment's separation of church and state. Last July, the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed and found the law constitutional in a 2-1 ruling.

"Indiana does not celebrate the religious aspects of Good Friday; for Indiana the holiday has absolutely no religious significance," the appeals court said. "To Indiana, Good Friday is nothing but a Friday falling in the middle of the long vacationless spring a day employees should take off to rejuvenate themselves."

The argument is less than persuasive for several reasons.

No one would fault the state for planning a three-day weekend sometime between January and April. The issue is whether Indiana was acting in a religiously neutral fashion by designating a specific Christian holiday as the time for this weekend.

It is nearly impossible to see the honoring of Good Friday by the state as anything but an endorsement of Christianity. In fact, it is an endorsement of a specific tradition within Christianity since Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrate the holiday on a different day.

There are adherents of several other faiths represented in Indiana who not only are made to feel like second-class citizens by this official state recognition, but also have to take additional days off for the celebration of their own holidays, which are not recognized by the state.

Moreover, even for those who observe Good Friday as a holy day, state recognition does no favor. Once the government chooses to cross the church-state wall to honor a sectarian tradition, part of the religious character of the holiday is removed. One need look no further than Christmas, which has been secularized to such an extent that it is now celebrated more in America's malls than its churches.

In light of this controversy and nearly identical ones in other states, the Supreme Court should have taken the Bridenbaugh case and drawn a clear line: government has no business choosing which religious holidays get state endorsement and which ones don't.