The U.S. Supreme Court, late in January, dodged a bullet by refusing to decide whether Maryland’s decision to close its public schools on Good Friday violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. State and local Good Friday closing laws have been with us for many generations, but recently they have been challenged in the federal courts. It was only early in this century that the Supreme Court declared that the First Amendment’s restrictions on religion apply to the states; after all, the text of the First Amendment only prohibits action by Congress, and there were three established churches and religious restrictions on the franchise and holding public office in 11 of the 15 original states at the time the First Amendment was adopted.

For most of our history, it was not uncommon even for federal judges (including those on the Supreme Court) to state that the United States was a “Christian nation.” Madison, writing in the Federalist, implied that Americans’ shared possession of Christianity was one of the factors working in favor of sound republican government, and Tocqueville, trying to explain why democracy worked in America, pointed to Christianity as one answer. Indeed, the Founders believed that there could be no order without law, no law without morality, and no morality without religion. They had no difficulty with the official promotion of Christianity, though they believed that the federal government should not embrace any particular sect.

The worry among many civil liberties organizations, however, is that any overt endorsement of Christianity by government will lead to political or perhaps psychological damage. Thus, in the Maryland Good Friday closing case, the Jewish teacher who challenged the holiday argued that the state’s practice “sends a message of inclusion to Christian schoolchildren and a message of exclusion to their Jewish, Muslim, and non-believing classmates.” Talmudic distinctions are called for here, as the actions of the American Jewish Congress seem to suggest. With commendable chutzpah, the AJC supports closing schools on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, on the theory that the absence of many pupils and teachers on those days could make conducting class difficult or expensive. But it opposes Good Friday closings or Easter vacations because of its belief that “The establishment clause ensures that ours is not a Christian nation; rather, it is a pluralistic one, comprised of peoples of myriad faiths, beliefs and views.”

It is apparently the labeling of the spring holidays as “Good Friday” or “Faster” vacations, without invoking evidence of a secular justification, that bothers the AJC. Picking up the cue, Maryland, Indiana, and other jurisdictions that have successfully defended Good Friday closings have begun to argue that the holidays have a secular purpose: avoiding costs of absenteeism, or providing a spring holiday during the long stretch bounded by Martin Luther King, Jr., Day and Presidents Day on one end and summer vacation on the other.

The federal courts of appeals appear to be buying that argument, applying the aptly named “Lemon test,” mentioned in my Cultural Revolutions last month. This test is maddeningly difficult to apply. For instance, it forbids official displays of freestanding creches or menorahs, but permits these seasonal symbols if they are combined with non-religious items such as Santa, his elves, and reindeer. (This is known in the trade as the “three plastic animals” rule.)

In letting the federal appeals court decision in the Maryland Good Friday closing case stand, the Supreme Court may have decided that, in an age when a President can seek to avoid the commission of perjury by ruminating on what the meaning of the word “is” is, it is permissible to allow religious holidays when the fig leaf of a secular purpose can be modestly placed upon them. If the Court decides not to rule on the issue, this will become the accepted practice. This doesn’t exactly encourage respect for the rule of law, but it might help avoid excessive entanglement of the federal courts with the exercise of popular sovereignU’ by state and local governments. The Supreme Court has, at this writing, not yet indicated whether it will take on the Indiana “Good Friday” closing case, which is also before it, but my bet is that it will not.

This spring, the Court is already obligated to determine whether the federal “Violence Against Women Act” is constitutional (it should not be, but the Court will ignite a firestorm if it so decides); it will likely pronounce on the constitutionality of school vouchers (too close to call); it will ride on the permissibility of compulsory student fees to finance partisan political activities (should be a no-no); and it may even overturn the requirement of the Miranda warning (don’t bet on it). This will be one of the most important Supreme Court terms in years, and it should set the stage for a battle between the presidential candidates over the Court’s role in national life. At this point, the Supremes don’t need the Good Friday dispute, and they would do best to avoid it.