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Illinois Court: School Closings for Religious Holidays Not Legal

In a precedent-setting case, an Illinois appeals court has ruled that the state can not close schools on religious holidays.

In a 2-1 decision, a panel of Seventh District Court of Appeals judges declared a state statute that directed schools to close on Good Friday unconstitutional.

“The First Amendment does not allow a state to make it easier for adherents of one faith to practice their religion than for adherents of another faith to practice their religion unless there is a secular justification for the difference in treatment,” according to the ruling, which was issued June 19.

Schools can continue to voluntarily close for religious holidays if a significant number of students and teachers will be absent. Some major metropolitan areas, such as new York and Philadelphia, close for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, for this reason.

The case, Metzl vs. Leininger, challenged a 1941 state ordinance mandating that schools close on Good Friday. Until 1989, the entire state shut down.

Chicago school teacher Andrea Metzl sued the state through school superintendent Robert Leininger, saying the statue was unconstitutional because one religion’s holiday was marked by a day off.

The school tried to show a secular reason for the holiday, but the court rejected the argument.

Jewish groups and legal observers praised the decision banning the state from closing schools as victory for church-state separation. They also said it set several precedents.

“The state of Illinois is well served by the action of the Court of Appeals,” said David Kahn, president of the AJCongress, which assisted Metzl in finding an attorney in her case.

“We are encouraged by the Court’s strong adherence to the First Amendment principles that protect us all,” Kahn said in a statement.

In deciding to eliminate Illinois’ Good Friday holiday, the court has said “even if the [religious] preference is mild, it is still illegal and unconstitutional,” said Marc Stern, co-director of legal affairs at AJCongress.

By requiring the state to prove a secular reason for the school holiday, the court shifted the burden of proof from the plaintiff to the government, he said.

When a state enacts a law that prefers one religion over another, “they need justification. The burden is on the state to prove a secular reason” for the law, Stern said.

In many states, individual schools can choose to close an religious holidays if a significant number of students and teachers would be absent.

Such a decision does not violate church-state separation, said Sam Rabinove, the American Jewish Committee’s legal director. The schools must make up the missed days, he added.

“It’s matter of practicality, not law,” Rabinove said.

The Seventh Circuit’s decision conflicted with an earlier decision in a Hawaii case. In that case, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals allowed the Good Friday statue.

A number of states have Good Friday measures, Stern said. Although there are no other cases challenging these measures, this month’s decision in Illinois will “undoubtedly stir up further ones,” he said.

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