The Good News of the Judgment

Holy Days or Holidays?
Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph.D.

Sunday Laws and Holy Days in the Judgement Hour

Should the State protect the observance of religious Holy Days by making them civil holidays? The answer of those committed to the separation between Church and State is clearly "NO!" Civil laws should not be passed to protect the observance of the religious Holy Days of a particular church. Such laws violate the First Amendment of the American Constitution: "Congress shall make no laws respecting an establishment of religion."

Recent developments, however, indicate that some churches are committed to protect the observance of their Holy Days by means of civil legislation, even if this 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 The religious liberty to which the Catechism alludes is not the freedom of all religions to observe their respective Holy Days, but the freedom of Catholics to observe their own Holy Days under the protection of civil legislation.

The same appeal is made by Pope John Paul II's in his Pastoral Letter Dies Domini: "In the particular circumstances of our 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 ignores the discriminatory nature of such legislation against those who observe Saturday or other days of the week.

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, which is 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.

The efforts of the Holy See have been most successful. In almost all the countries where the Catholic Church exercises a dominant influence, the local governments have made the Catholic Holy Days 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."

Other countries are currently 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. The 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. 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, CSB, President of the University of St. Thomas and former member of the Secretariat of State of the Holy See from 1992 to 1997, states that the goals of the Pope "are, admittedly, a mixture of the religious and the more narrowly political. John Paul, however, is not constrained by American ideas of the separation of Church and State, but pursues what he regards as the common good of all humanity."4

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." The problem with the Pope's policy is his mistaken identification of the "common good of all humanity," with what is good of the Catholic Church. But, what is good for the Catholic church, is not necessarily good for society as a whole.

For the Pope or any church leader to impose their own church Holy Days as legal holiday for 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 been fraught with 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."

To prevent a repetition of the 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 often religious agendas are concealed and promoted as a 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 even in the Pastoral Letter Dies Domini where the Pope downplays the religious aspects of Sunday Laws, highlighting instead the social, cultural, and family values. For examples, 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 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 such 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 the 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. For examples, the Lord's Day Alliance of the USA, an ecumenical organization supported by over twenty Protestant denominations, frequently publishes articles in her Sunday magazine, emphasizing the secular and social benefits of Sunday Laws.

A good example is the article by Attorney Michael Woodruff, entitled "The Constitutionality of Sunday Laws, published in Sunday. Woodruff writes: "If we must justify the retention of the Lord's Day as a secular day of rest, 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 incidental. To this end, the distinction between religious practice and the form of laws is important."7

The Pope is well aware of the need to maintain this distinction. Thus 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 a 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 live today in a pluralistic society where there are Christian and Jews who observe Saturday as their day of rest, and Muslim who may wish to observe their Friday.

To be fair 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. The implementation of such legislation is inconceivable, because it would disrupt our socioeconomic system.

The issue at stake is not the right of Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, or other religious groups, 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 to persuade Congress to pass a law making their weekly Sabbath and their seven annual Holy Days, as legal, national holidays. Most Americans would strongly denounce such a law as unconstitutional, sectarian, and discriminatory. Yet, this is exactly what has happened in many countries where 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. Saturday was a school day. Only Sunday was the legal weekly day of rest. Being 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."

In many countries thousands of Sabbatarians have suffered over the years 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. Should the State guarantee to all its citizens the right to observe their weekly and annual Holy Days? The answer is "Yes" and "No." 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. Such a policy would disrupt the socioeconomic system of our society, besides violating the First Amendment.

The State can protect the right of various religious groups to observe their Holy Days, simply by enacting a legislation that encourages employers to accommodate the religious convictions of their employees. In most cases this can be done without causing undue hardship to companies, because the short-work week already provides workers with two or three free days. This means that 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 are, 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 a legislation that would urge employers to accommodate the religious convictions of their workers, when this does not cause undue hardship to their business.

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. Christians cannot always expect a smooth sailing.

Summing up, Christian and non-Christian religions have the right to seek recognition from the State to practice their religion unhindered, but they cannot expect the State to protect their Holy Days by making them civil holidays. Such a 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.


1. Catechism of the Catholic Church ((Vatican City, 1994), p. 528.
2. Pastoral Letter Dies Domini, paragraph 67.
3. The text of the agreement can be accessed at the following web site:
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. Pastoral Letter Dies Domini, paragraph 67.
6. Cited by Michael J. Woodruff, "The Constitutionality of Sunday Laws," Sunday 79 (January-April 1991), p. 9.
7. Ibid., pp. 21-22.
8. Pastoral Letter Dies Domini, paragraph 66.

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