By Ananda Shorey
WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Tuesday refused to hear a former Montgomery County schoolteacher’s challenge of a state law that mandates a public school holiday from the Friday before Easter to the Monday following.
Judith Koenick claimed the mandatory holiday is an unconstitutional infringement of the separation of church and state. Koenick declined to comment on the case, but her attorney said that the law provides benefits to Christians that the state does not provide to people of other religions.
“We’re disappointed that the Supreme Court decided not to hear the case,” said Dwight Sullivan, the attorney. “The Christian majority is treating itself better than it is treating the minorities.”
But a Montgomery County schools spokesman said the Supreme Court made an “excellent” decision. He said the lower court ruled correctly that this was not a separation of church and state issue and there was no abridgement of anyone’s right to practice their own religion.
“The case never should have been appealed in the first place and we’re grateful for the Supreme Court’s concurrence,” said the spokesman, Brian Porter.
Porter said the law requiring a holiday during what has become known as spring break has a secular justification: Because a high number of students would be gone during that time, it makes sense to close the schools. Spring break is designed to come midway between the semester, which is when Easter falls, he said.
The Montgomery County school system has other holidays celebrated by a large portion of the school population, such as Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. Porter said those holidays are observed in Montgomery County when they fall on a weekday.
The U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond upheld the Maryland law on Aug. 20, ruling that closing the public schools on Good Friday and Easter Monday conferred no special benefit on Christians.
“The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond ruled correctly that the state-mandated holidays surrounding Easter had lost their religious significance given secular customs and the scheduling of regular spring breaks,” Porter said.
The state law requiring school systems to give students time off around Easter weekend dates back to 1865. Sullivan said opponents of that law would rather see the decision on a Good Friday holiday left up to individual school districts.
As long as it is a mandated holiday, Sullivan said there is currently no way of knowing whether the majority of students would be out of school anyway on Good Friday, as supporters claim. Such holidays should be based purely on attendance, not arbitrarily centered on religious holidays, he said.
“It doesn’t let people play politics with it,” Sullivan said. “You look at the percentage of attendance and it would take the school out of that (holiday decision making).”
Montgomery County school board attorney Roger Titus said the school system was pleased by the high court’s action.
“We didn’t think the case was worthy of the Supreme Court hearing it,” Titus said. He said Koenick mischaracterized the statute and that she claimed federal circuit courts disagreed on the issue, when they do not.
Sullivan disagreed, saying Koenick “specifically pointed out the discrepancies between the circuits.”
“She’s disappointed,” he said.