Holy Days Or Holidays?

Samuele Bacchiocchi March/April 2000 Recent developments, however, indicate that some churches might be seeking to protect the observance of their holy days by means of civil legislation, even if it means violating the First Amendment. For example, the new Catechism of the Catholic Church explicitly states: "In respecting religious liberty and the common good of all, Christians should seek recognition of Sunday and the Church's Holy Days as legal holidays."(1) Of course, the religious liberty to which the Catechism alludes is not the freedom of all religions to observe their respective holy days but, more narrowly, the freedom of Catholics to place their own holy days under the protection and indeed recommendation of civil legislation.

The same appeal is made by Pope John Paul II in his pastoral letter Dies Domini: "In the particular circumstances of our own time, Christians will naturally strive to ensure that civil legislation respects their duty to keep Sunday holy."(2) By calling for Sunday legislation to protect Sunday observance, the pope seems ready to ignore the discriminatory nature of such legislation against those who observe Saturday or other days of the week. He seems not to be sensitive at all to those who might conscientiously object to any state-mandated form of worship.

Further, the Catholic Church is not only urging Christians "to seek recognition of Sunday and of the Church's Holy Days as legal holidays," but is also employing the diplomatic channels and influence of the Holy See to achieve this objective. The Holy See, as the moral and juridical representative of the Catholic Church, is actively involved in persuading the international community of nations to recognize Catholic holy days as legal holidays.

And the efforts of the Holy See have been most successful. In almost all countries where the Catholic Church exercises a dominant influence, the local governments have made the Catholic holy days into national civil holidays. In my native Italy, for example, as well as in France, Spain, Portugal, and all Central and South American countries, August 15 is a national holiday that commemorates the Catholic belief in the assumption of Mary to heaven. The same is true of November 1, a national holiday that commemorates what the Catholic Church calls "All Saints' Day."

A number of other countries are currently being urged to recognize Catholic holy days as legal holidays. Croatia, for example, signed an agreement with the Holy See on February 11, 1999, regarding juridical questions. Article 9 of the agreement explicitly states as follows:

"Sunday and the following Holy Days will be free from work: (a) January 1, commemoration of Mary, the most holy Mother of God, New Year; (b) January 6, the Epiphany of the Lord or the Holy Magi; (c) Monday following Easter-Sunday; (d) August 15, the Assumption of the Blessed virgin Mary; (e) November 1, all the saints; (f) December 25, the Birth of the Lord; (g) December 26, first day after Christmas, St. Stephan."(3)

The Constitutionality of Religious Holidays

As stated earlier, any attempt to influence national governments to adopt as national civil holidays the religious holy days of a particular church clearly violates the separation between church and state. But such a violation does not seem to preoccupy the Catholic Church, concerned as she is in advancing her own cause, even if it means sacrificing the fundamental principle of the separation between church and state.

In a speech entitled "The Vatican's Role in World Affairs: The Diplomacy of Pope John Paul II," Michael Miller, C.S.B., president of the University of St. Thomas and former member of the Secretariat of State of the Holy See from 1992 to 1997, stated that the goals of the pope "are, admittedly, a mixture of the religious and the more narrowly political." With candid frankness Miller acknowledges that "John Paul is not constrained by American ideas of the separation of Church and State." Instead his concern is to "pursue what he regards as the common good of all humanity." (4) The problem with this pope's policy is his mistaken identification of the "common good of all humanity" with the good of the Catholic Church. But what is good for the Catholic Church is not necessarily good for society as a whole. And what is bad for constitutional integrity will compromise all of our freedoms.

For the pope or any church leader to impose their own church holy days as legal holidays on the rest of society means to violate the freedom of those who do not accept such holy days. History teaches us that such policy has had frightful consequences. Countless "heretics" have been tortured and executed for refusing to accept the peculiar beliefs promoted by the dominant church for "the good of all mankind." And indeed the recent apostolic letter Ad Tuendam Fidem ("In Defense of the Faith") contains more than a few intimations of this historic tendency.

To prevent a repetition of any past religious intolerance, it is imperative to ensure that no one church succeeds in imposing her religious agenda on the rest of society. This is not an easy task, because religious agendas are often concealed and promoted as social and secular programs for the good of humanity.

The "Secular" Benefits of Sunday Laws

A case in point is the promotion of Sunday laws on the basis of social, cultural, and family values. This strategy is evident in the pastoral letter Dies Domini, in which the pope downplays the religious aspects of Sunday laws, highlighting instead the social, cultural, and family values. For example, John Paul says: "Through Sunday rest, daily concerns and tasks can find their proper perspectives: the material things about which we worry give way to spiritual values; in a moment of encounter and less pressured exchange, we see the true face of the people with whom we live. Even the beauties of nature-too often marred by the desire to exploit, which turns against man himself-can be rediscovered and enjoyed to the full."(5)

By emphasizing the human and "secular" benefits and values of Sunday laws, John Paul knows that he can gain greater international acceptance for their legislation. It is worth noting in this regard the U.S. Supreme Court decision in McGowan v. Maryland, 366 U.S. 420 (1961) that upheld Maryland's Sunday-closing laws as not violative of the federal Constitution. The reason the Court justified the state=s interest in protecting a common day of Sunday rest is that Sunday has become secularized in American society. The Court said: "We believe that the air of the day is one of relaxation rather than religion."(6)

This reality is recognized not only by the pope but also by Protestant churches. The Lord's Day Alliance, an ecumenical organization in the United States, supported by more than 20 Protestant denominations, frequently publishes articles in its Sunday magazine, emphasizing the secular and social benefits of Sunday Laws. Typical of the Sunday approach is an article by Attorney Michael Woodruff entitled "The Constitutionality of Sunday laws." "If we must justify the retention of the Lord's Day as a secular day of rest," Woodruff writes, "we must find compelling secular grounds to make it so. . . . If courts view Sunday laws as having the direct effect of 'advancing religion,' then under current First Amendment doctrine, such laws must be unconstitutional. However, if the laws are generally applicable and have a religion-neutral purpose, then the effect is likely to be seen as incidental. To this end, the distinction between religious practice and the form of laws is important."(7)

The pope seems well aware of the need to maintain this distinction. So, naturally, in his pastoral letter he appeals to the social and human values that Sunday laws guarantee and promote. He writes: "In our historical context there remains the obligation [of the state] to ensure that everyone can enjoy the freedom, rest and relaxation which human dignity requires, together with the associated religious, family, cultural and interpersonal needs which are difficult to meet if there is no guarantee of at least one day of the week on which people can both rest and celebrate."(8)

The problem with the above reasoning is the definition of "one day a week" as meaning exclusively "Sunday." Both the Catholic Church and the Lord's Day Alliance are committed to ensure that Sunday is the weekly day of rest protected by law. This policy ignores that we have a pluralistic society, in which Christians and Jews observe Saturday as their day of rest, Muslims may wish to observe their Friday, and countless other groups and individuals might find the imposition of religious holy days at odds with their principles, and in some cases at odds with their lack of profession.

In order to be responsive to all the religious and nonreligious groups holding different days of rest and/or worship, the state would have to pass legislation guaranteeing different legal holidays to different people. Of course, implementation of such legislation is inconceivable, because it would seriously disrupt our socioeconomic system.

The issue at stake is not the right of Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, or any other religious group, to protect their weekly and annual holy days, but rather their right to seek state recognition for their own holy days as legal holidays. The latter is an attempt to advance the interest of one's own religion by infringing on the freedom of others.

Imagine what would happen in America if the Jews succeeded in persuading Congress to pass a law making their weekly Sabbath and their seven annual holy days national legal holidays. Most Americans would strongly denounce such a law as unconstitutional, sectarian, and discriminatory. Yet this is exactly what has happened in many countries in which the Catholic Church has been able to influence the political process. The Catholic holy days have been enacted into national legal holidays, causing considerable problems for minorities who observe different days.

This was my experience while growing up in Rome, Italy. Back then Saturday was a school day. Only Sunday was the legal weekly day of rest. Unable to attend school on Saturday on account of my religious convictions, I faced constant problems, including the threat of expulsion from school. To justify my school absences our family doctor wrote a most ingenious medical certificate, stating that on Saturday I was "psychologically incapacitated." But even that kindness hints at a marginalization of dissent reminiscent of the Soviet Union, where religious and political dissent was categorized as mental aberration and treated as such in prison wards. A not so subtle and very dehumanizing way to deal with dissent.

In many countries thousands of Sabbatarians have over the years suffered all sort of recriminations and persecutions for refusing to violate their religious convictions by working on Saturday. In these instances Sunday laws have served to penalize those who for religious reasons choose to rest and worship on a different day of the week.

In many countries thousands of Sabbatarians have over the years suffered all sort of recriminations and persecutions for refusing to violate their religious convictions by working on Saturday. In these instances Sunday laws have served to penalize those who for religious reasons choose to rest and worship on a different day of the week.

The State and the Holy Days

So should the state guarantee to all its citizens the right to observe their weekly and annual holy days? The answer is "Yes" and "No." Of course the state must protect the rights of all its citizens to practice their religion, including their holy days. But this does not mean that the state must recognize as legal holidays all the religious holy days observed by the various religious groups within the state. In quick order such a policy would destroy First Amendment rights and protections as well as seriously disrupt the socioeconomic system.

The state can protect the right of various religious groups to observe their holy days simply by enacting a legislation that encourages employers to make reasonable efforts to accommodate the religious convictions of their employees. In most cases this can be done without causing undue hardship to companies, because the short workweek already provides workers with two or three free days. Most basically, all that a company needs to do is to set up the work schedule of its workers in accordance to their rest-day preference.

There will be, however, insensitive companies that show no consideration to the religious convictions of their workers. In such cases the solution is to be found not in Sunday or Saturday laws, but in legislation that assists employers in accommodating the religious convictions of their workers, ensuring that this does not cause undue business hardship.

Of course, the practice of one's religion, including one's holy days, is bound to cause some problems in the secular and pluralistic society in which we live. This is part of the Christian calling to live in the world without becoming part of it.

Summing up, Christian and non-Christian religions have the right to seek recognition from the state to practice their religion unhindered, but they should not expect the state to protect their holy days by making them civil holidays. Any such law would violate the fundamental principle of the separation between church and state, which has proven to be the best guarantee of religious liberty for all.

Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph.D., is professor of theology at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, and a prolific author of books on church state issues and Sabbath rest research.


(1) Catechism of the Catholic Church (Vatican City: 1994), p. 528.
(2) Pastoral letter Dies Domini, par. 67.
(3) The text of the agreement can be accessed at the following website: http://www.hbk.hr/vijesti/1996/talug/tprv.htm.
(4) J. Michael Miller, "The Vatican's Role in World Affairs. The Diplomacy of Pope John Paul II" (speech delivered in the fall of 1997 at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas).
(5) Dies Domini, par. 67.
(6) Cited by Michael J. Woodruff, "The Constitutionality of Sunday Laws," Sunday 79 (January-April 1991): 9.
(7) Ibid., pp. 21, 22.
(8) Dies Domini, par. 66.

Article Author: Samuele Bacchiocchi