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.


  1. The court got it right but the legislature that enacted the statute got it wrong. It is implicit in stating that the day off is Christmas to also state, that is the reason why it is the day off. They should have just stated the date alone. The real reason is that they are catering to the majority. C'mon, that's obvious. Otherwise, Yom Kippur would be an official federal holiday, for example. For those who understand it, Yom Kippur is far more important to observe than "New Years Day." To declare New Years day a federal holiday, based on the georgian calendar off while not declaring Yom Kippur and/or Rosh Hashana is patently discriminatory and caters to the majority. Sure, people can take the day off (Paid Time Off) for whatever, but that is not the same as declaring a federal holiday.

    1. Welcome to the United States. Democratic republics cater to the majority. Big deal! I'm a secular citizen, and I have no issue with Christmas being a federal holiday, or religious symbols like crosses, commandments, etc. being on public buildings. Organizations like Freedom From Religion Foundation and countless other secular citizens are too intolerant of the majority's traditions in this country. It's juvenile. Keep on Christmas'n, America!

    2. Doesn't matter if one is secular or not since that states nothing about your religious preferences. The main point is, if one looks at the rationale, first, the fact that Dec 25 was a holiday as far back as the 4th century or Xmas was created before the USA existed is irrelevant. Yom Kippur for example, existed long before both of those yet it is not a federal holiday. The fact is Dec 25 is Xmas and that is the official federal holiday so the majority may get a day off to observe it while other holidays of more ancient well-established religions are unrecognized. Whether one is an aethiest, "secular," or of another religion is ignored or whether one chooses to observe it or not doesn't matter -- it's discriminatory to recognize one religion over another by making it a federal holiday while forcing those who observe other religions to take the day off with or without pay. A better decision would be to allow people to take the day off that they choose and use their paid time off for that purpose.

  2. It is not discriminatory to recognize Christmas by giving it a federal holiday. Majority rules in a democracy, period. There is nothing stopping the other people that follow other religions from using their vacation days to observe their holy days. TO suggest a better decision is to allow people to take off the day they choose, blah, blah, it just PC crap.

    1. The majority does not always rule in a democracy; you have that wrong. Democracy requires minority rights equally as it does majority rule. Majority rule can not be the only expression of "supreme power" in a democracy. If so, as Tocqueville noted, the majority would too easily tyrannize the minority. But this is not a political science issue, this is a first amendment issue. The decision violates the establishment clause of the US Constitution and is therefore unconstitutional. The legislative decision favors one religion over another and pursuant to the three-part test of Lemon v Kurtzman, especially the third part, is unconstitutional. Have a happy Xmas. Enjoy your day off. Try not to paraphrase the comments of others by insulting them by using the word "crap" or "blah," thereby revealing your lack of intelligence.

  3. If you consider Christmas as a federal holiday tyrannical, you are the one who lacks intelligence. There are too many examples where the complaints of a small group, or sometimes just one individual, ruin long time traditions. PC crap is correct.

  4. Thank you for the hyper link post to Jaimie Katz's Chicago Times story, "Yes, Virginia — you can say 'Merry Christmas' A cheerful greeting is not an intolerant decree". While I am not as an intelligent, or as educated as your many readers and prior posters, nor am I a great writer, I can say this, I agree with Anonymous and Merry Christmas to all!

    Jose F. Medeiros, San Jose, Cal
    An Unemployed American

  5. Someone stated that the reason it is a federal holiday is because on 25 Dec hardly anyone would show up to work. Practical but probably true... I think the issues were covered well in the discussion above, but allow me to add that some seem to confuse your right to enjoy your holiday with freedom of religion as guaranteed by the first amendment. Even if it wasn't designated as a federal holiday, you can still consider it your holiday and take the day off. It is tyrannical to favor one religion over another and to entangle the federal government by favoring one religion's holiday. Sure, it is a Xmas tree, not a holiday tree. Let's not deceive ourselves by calling it all "secular". And it's not aetheism either, rather it's just respecting all religions equally.

  6. So the government could shut down on the first day of Ramadan if it wanted to?

  7. Why not just designate the fourth Monday in December as a federal winter holiday and leave it at that? Non-religious while giving most people a day off. It also fits into the general federal guidelines of trying to have holidays on Mondays (MLK Day, Labor Day, etc.), so as to save the government money.

  8. I would love to read your thoughts on Palin's new Christmas book (re: