Illinois court bans state closing of schools on religious holidays

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

In a 2-1 decision, a panel of Seventh District Court of Appeals judges declared that a state statute directing schools to close on Good Friday is 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 close voluntarily for religious holidays if a significant number of students and teachers will be absent on those days. Some major metropolitan areas, such as New York and Philadelphia, close for Rosh Hashanah 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 for that Christian holiday.

Chicago schoolteacher Andrea Metzl sued the state through school Superintendent Robert Leininger, saying the statute was unconstitutional because one religion's holiday was marked by a day off.

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

Jewish groups and legal observers praised the decision banning the state from closing schools as a 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 American Jewish Congress, 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 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," Stern said, adding, "The burden is on the state to prove a secular reason" for the law.

In many states, individual schools can choose to close on religious holidays if a significant number of students and teachers will be absent on those days.

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

"It's a matter of practicality, not law," Rabinove said.