Federal vs. State

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”[1] This statement is more commonly known to the general public as the Establishment Clause.  The Constitution also has a Supremacy Clause, which “assures that the Constitution and federal laws and treaties take precedence over state law and binds all judges to adhere to that principle in their courts.”[2] The combination of these Clauses thus states that the government should not, in any way, be involved in religious affairs; there is to be a clear separation of Church and State.

The Lemon Test - (c) glogster.com

The United States jurisdiction follows a common law system; each case serves as precedent for determining the decisions of similar, following cases under the doctrine of stare decisis. In Lemon v. Kurtzman[3], the Supreme Court established a “three-part test for determining whether government action violates the Establishment Clause of the Constitution,” more informally known as the Lemon Test.  This test is as follows:

  • “’First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose; second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion; finally, the statute must not foster “an excessive government entanglement with religion.’ Id. at 612-13. If any one prong of the test is not met, then the government action is unconstitutional.”

According to these three legal precedents, things such as the population of specific religious groups in individual states should also not serve as basis for anything that is to be determined by the government.

The CRS Report of 1999

However, there is an informal loophole that changes perspectives entirely. The Congressional Research Service created a report for Congress in 1999 titled “Federal Holidays: Evolution and Application.” This report details the establishment of the “11 permanent federal holidays.”[4] It emphasizes that these holidays are void only for federal employees and the District of Columbia, as no sole branch of government holds the authority to “declare a national holiday which would be binding on the 50 states.”[5] It is to be individually decided by state governments what the legal holidays would be for their own state.

The report continues to detail that some federal holidays were in fact established because so many states had adapted them for their respective states; it also states that these holidays were also great representations of the “American Heritage that molded the United States as a people and a nation.”  For example, the CRS Report does not consider Christmas to be religious at all, but rather a “day appointed or recommended by the President of the United States as a day of public fasting or thanksgiving.”

It is thus important to be aware of the fact that state governments trump federal governments in establishing legal holidays, but that federal governments trump state governments in matters that consider religion. It may very well be innately unconstitutional, but it is the tradition that our nation has followed regarding holidays.  It is also to be noted that holidays are quite informal in nature; they are not legally binding statutes.  State school boards thus have the authority to decide whether or not they feel that schools should be closed on specific days.

So where exactly does the establishment of the “legal” religious holidays really fall in?  It can still be debated that the “no-school” holidays of the various state educational systems of the nation should not, at all, be influenced by factors of religion.  After all, a loophole is but a loophole.  However, as seen by previous cases in different educational boards throughout the United States, tradition will always prevail.

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[1] U.S. Const., amend. I. (Establishment Clause is located in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution).

[3] Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971) (Supreme Court held statute providing state aid to benefit nonpublic schools violated Establishment Clause of First Amendment).

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