Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Is a Christmas Federal Holiday Constitutional? - COTW #21

The federal government officially recognizes December 25, along with nine other days, as a holiday. Federal statute provides: "The following are legal public holidays . . . Christmas Day, December 25." 5 U.S.C.A. § 6103. Is the government's recognition of a religious holiday, namely Christmas, Constitutional?

According to Ganulin v. U.S., 71 F. Supp. 2d 824 (S.D. Ohio 1999)(affirmed by the 6th Circuit) it is Constitutional. And, since we're closing in on Christmas, Ganulin is the perfect Case of the Week. I provided a brief summary of the case in last year's entry: Christmas and the Constitution. Recently, a reader offered some colorful commentary (see comments on the linked post) to which I will respond in this post.

He asserts: "Yet the fed govt named it 'christ'mas day. So, maybe the problem is . . . that they used one particular culture's cult figurehead to name it after!"

The Government Didn't "Name it" Christmas
Yes, I see the point that the statute includes the word "Christmas" and that the word has a clear religious connotation (aka "Christ"). But, as the Christmas Wikipedia entry notes, the date of December 25 may have been selected as early as the 4th Century (more than a millennium before the U.S. government existed)! And it was certainly called "Christmas" before the federal statute.

If the government were to take a random day and call it "Christ Day" then this argument would be more compelling. But the date and name simply didn't originate with the government. Admittedly, the statute does still acknowledge "Christmas" but that is in line with the Court's rationale, which I explain below.

"The Calendar of Public Activities"
If you read the Court's opinion it offers secular purposes for the holiday such as "accommodat[ing] the calendar of public activities" and "recognizing the cultural significance of the holiday." In short, the "public calendar" had a holiday before the government passed the statute, and that holiday was "Christmas."

As the Court notes, the days of the week are named for religious reasons. For example, "Thursday" comes from the Norse god Thor. I certainly don't take the statute's recognition of Thanksgiving as "the fourth Thursday in November" as an establishment of Norse polytheism. It just recognizes that the public calendar marks it as such.

There is No Mandate
Ultimately, the Christmas holiday doesn't require any religious activity or acceptance of any religion. At one point, the commenter asserts "I'm not trying to take away christmas [but] it shouldn't be rammed down our collective throats by federal mandate." But, the federal government doesn't "mandate" that you do anything. Literally, nothing. It's one of ten weekdays throughout the year on which federal employees generally don't have to come into work. The "Christmas" holiday doesn't require you to practice Christianity any more than Labor Day forces you to join a union.

While I certainly understand the concern over government mandates regarding religious holidays, I'm just not convinced that Ganulin got it wrong. I'm open-minded though, so if you have counter-arguments to the Court's position, please drop a comment.

Update (12/22/2010): Jewish author Jamie Katz has an interesting article along the lines of the "public calendar" theory in the Chicago Tribune: Yes, Virginia -  You Can Say 'Merry Christmas'

Image: Christmas tree at Rockefeller Plaza, New York, 2006. Author: Alsandro - Under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 license.

Posted by Philip Miles, an attorney with McQuaide Blasko in State College, Pennsylvania in the firm's civil litigation and labor and employment law practice groups.