U.S. court in Maryland rules Easter a secular holiday

WASHINGTON — The U.S. District Court for Maryland has ruled that Easter is a secular holiday and refused to strike down the state statute requiring public schools to close on Good Friday and Easter Monday.

The state is not allowed to close public schools for religious reasons because of the constitutional separation between church and state.

Schoolteacher Judith M. Koenick filed suit against the Montgomery County school board president, Reginald M. Felton, claiming the Maryland statute violates the Constitution's prohibition against government establishment of religion.

Koenick, who is Jewish, also filed an equal protection claim because Jewish teachers are required to use personal vacation time if they wish to observe holidays such as Passover, Sukkot and the second day of Rosh Hashanah.

Her attorney, Eugene Fidell, said the June 30 decision against his client was clearly incorrect and missed the point.

"Obviously, Easter means nothing to Jews, to Muslims or people of other faiths," Fidell said. "It is not even celebrated on the same day by other Christian sects such as Greek Orthodox. To say that it is secular because it involves bunnies and because people go out to brunch is clearly wrong."

Koenick plans to appeal the case, which will go to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth District in Richmond, Va.

Fidell said the plaintiff in similar cases "typically wins." He listed cases in Illinois, Wisconsin and Florida in which state rules requiring public schools to close on Good Friday were repealed.

If Koenick wins her appeal it would be up to county school boards in Maryland to conduct surveys to determine whether there would be sufficient attendance if school was held on Good Friday and Easter Monday. Similar surveys led to the closing of schools on Yom Kippur and the first day of Rosh Hashanah.

Rev. Kevin Irwin from Catholic University and Rev. Stanley Hauer was from the Duke Divinity and Law schools, both expert witnesses for the plaintiff, wrote in affidavits that Good Friday and Easter are inherently religious holidays with no secular aspects.

In his decision, Judge Alexander Williams Jr. disputed Koenick's claim, saying it is "premised on an incorrect conception of Easter." He compared Easter to Christmas, which the U.S. Supreme Court has declared a national holiday.

"The long weekend surrounding the largely secularized holiday of Easter not only serves the ends of pragmatism and efficiency in school administration, but also provides an anchor for the yearly spring break enjoyed by students and faculty," Williams wrote.

But Dwight Sullivan, an American Civil Liberties Union counsel who worked on Koenick's case, countered, "This is not about Easter; it is about Good Friday."

Sullivan said that according to a Gallup poll, 60 percent of Christians attend church on Easter compared to 30 percent on Christmas, so, Sullivan concluded, the comparison to Christmas is faulty.

Also, according to Sullivan, the Monday after Easter was originally a religious day, and in fact on county calenders, it is referred to as "Easter Monday" and therefore is not a secular holiday either, as Williams asserted.

The American Jewish Congress and the National Council on Islamic Affairs both filed friend-of-the-court briefs.