Good Friday? Perhaps Not!
Here is an article I just submitted for our congregational newsletter concerning a Church-State Separation controversy that is occurring in our community.
By now, we should all be aware of the flap going on in the Davenport city government over the attempt to change the name of the “Good Friday” holiday to a “Spring” holiday. My God! It has even made the national news! Before I get to the heart of the issue for us as Jews I might as well get the glib response out of the way. There are those who have said, “Well, for me, every Friday is a good Friday!” Yuck, yuck! Actually, for me, every Friday would be a good Friday if only many more of the members of our congregation could find their way to the Temple for Shabbat services!
Now to the serious business at hand. There are those who moan that all of this is just making a mountain out of a mole hill. While on the surface it would appear that way, if we, as Jews, start to consider it more carefully, we should discover that perhaps it never was a mole hill but alwaya an ugly mountain. Why an ugly mountain? Let us consider the facts.
We need to start off with the First Amendment to the Constitution. It states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Thomas Jefferson would later refer to this principle as Separation of Church and State – so for all those wisenheimers who petulantly declare that Separation of Church and State is not in the Constitution, they need to be reminded that while the actual words “Separation of Church and State” are not in the Constitution, the principle is most certainly to be found there. Indeed, I find it of special significance that the framers of the Constitution thought this to be such an significant principle for the American democracy that they not only placed it in the Bill of Rights, but they placed it at the very beginning of that document. If the constitutional text is not clear enough, let me restate it more directly. All government agencies must remain religiously neutral. They are forbidden from promoting any one faith over all others and they are likewise forbidden from interfering with anyone’s ability to freely practice their faith. It is imperative to understand this when looking at the current situation, for since it involves the Davenport city government, that governmental agency is constitutionally bound to abide by the parameters of the First Amendment.
Now let us look at the recommendation which was offered to the Davenport city government by the Civil Rights Commission. They simply recommended that the city change the name of the “Good Friday” holiday to a “Spring” holiday. They NEVER recommended doing away with the holiday, but only that it be renamed. They made this recommendation because when a governmental agency makes a religious holiday an official holiday, it runs the risk of being charged with violating the First Amendment. By simply renaming the holiday with a neutral name, it avoids that violation while at the same time continues to permit those who observe this Christian holiday to do so without penalty. Nothing changes but the name, and people can do as they choose with the day.
Now here is where this who brouhaha should become of serious concern for us as Jews. That the name change should evoke such a vitriolic response from so many people that the city government decided to change it back should serve us non-Christians as a profound warning signal. After all, what are these people so angry about? They still have their holiday? No one is stopping them from going to church. All that is changed is a name on a governmental calendar. But that seems to be enough to outrage them. Why? Because they are fundamentally opposed to the principle of religious neutrality for our government. In fact, they do not view the government as “our” government but rather as “their” government, and we who do not share their faith are but tolerated guests in “their” land. We can speak of diversity, but they will re-label it as “politically correctness”, which has somehow come to be synonymous with “hogwash” (Personally, I have always marveled at how some people can consider the term “politically correct” as a pejorative. I have often wondered whether or not they are saying that they aspire that our country be “politically incorrect). My dear friends, you must awaken to the realization that when people like this explode over matters of inclusiveness and diversity, what they are telling us is nothing less than that they do not see us – Jews and people of other minority faiths – as being full Americans, in any way equal to them. Such outbursts are aimed directly at us, even though only one Jew sits on the Davenport Civil Rights Commission, which presented the original recommendation. For us, this is not a mole hill. This is a mountain; a mountain of religious prejudice.
As you probably know, I am a strict Church-State separationist. I believe that government and religious observances and professions of faith should be kept completely apart. That is why for all these years I have waged combat against religious music in the public schools. That is why I have always been opposed to the placement of any religious symbols – including Jewish symbols – on governmental property, whether they be the Ten Commandments or a creche or a Hanukkah menorah.
As a strict separationist, I would far prefer that a governmental agency such as the Davenport city government simply not recognize Good Friday as a holiday, just as they do not recognize Yom Kippur. Yet I appreciate that in order to do that, they would have to take away from their employees the opportunity to practice this aspect of their faith, and I am certainly not one who wishes to see anyone discouraged from practicing their faith. To me, that would go against the second part of the First Amendment which assures all Americans the freedom to practice their faith unimpeded by the government.
As I have considered this situation, I am reminded that the Chinese symbol for “crisis” is a combination of the symbols for “danger” and “opportunity”. So it is with our current “crisis”. Enfolded in it is the “danger” of a burgeoning religious prejudice and conflict. But also enfolded in it is an “opportunity” for our governmental agencies to rethink how they approach the question of religious holiday in general, remaining far truer to the text and spirit of the First Amendment. I have a proposal, though I doubt anyone will take it seriously. I propose that governmental agencies should wipe all religious holidays off of their calendar, including Christmas and Easter. In their stead, they should offer all their employees the opportunity to take three religious holidays of their choosing during the year. At some point in time, they would need to file their request for these holidays. As with the Davenport police contract, if the city is unable to give them off on any of those days, then they should receive time-and-a-half overtime for their work on them. In this way, Christians can take off for Christian holidays such as Christmas, Easter, and Good Friday; Jews can take off for Jewish holidays such as Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Pesach; while Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Bahai, etc. can choose their own holidays. If someone does not profess a faith, or their religion does not have three holidays, then they still can access three additional days off of their choosing. In this way, the government can remain religiously neutral, not showing preferential treatment to one faith over another yet also not interfering with their employees’ right to freely exercise their faiths.
I pray that when all the smoke clears, we will find that the city of Davenport and the people of the Quad Cities will have grown wiser and more caring of each other as a result of grappling with this sensitive issue.
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