The Austrian parliament has abolished Good Friday as a public holiday, a decision which affects members of the Evangelical Churches of the Augsburg and Helvetic Confessions, the Old Catholic Church and the Methodist Church.
Good Friday is a holy day for several Christian denominations marking the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. It is not a public holiday in the mainly Roman Catholic country, though Protestants and members of other smaller denominations have been entitled to a day off and to compensation if they must work.
The parliament’s decision, which has created quite a stir among minority Protestants in largely Catholic Austria, follows a ruling by the Court of Justice of the European Union.
In January, the ECJ ruled in favour of Markus Achatzi, who sued his company for extra pay for working on Good Friday. A security agent, Achatzi sued his company Cresco Investigation of Vienna in 2017 for additional pay for working on Good Friday, considered a public holiday for members of select churches.
Austria’s Supreme Court asked the ECJ to rule whether the national law was discriminatory in nature.
In its final ruling, the ECJ underlined that “granting a paid public holiday to employees who are members of certain churches constitutes discrimination on grounds of religion”.
It recommended that the Austrian government should amend its legislation.
Seeking to comply with that ruling, Austria’s ruling coalition said the second half of Good Friday would be a holiday for all, but that compromise was roundly ridiculed as an unsatisfactory fudge.
Subsequently, the Austrian parliament (Nationalrat) polled to revoke the legislation which has existed since 1955.
“We have jointly decided to go a step further and create a better solution: a ‘personal holiday’ enabling the practice of (one’s own) religion,” the Austrian cabinet’s policy coordinators said in a joint statement.
The personal day will not be a public holiday in the usual sense since it will be deducted from each person’s holiday allowance. But if an employee has given three months’ notice of their personal day and their employer requires them to work, they are entitled to compensation as on a public holiday.
“This solution creates clarity and legal certainty for all, as well as fairness and equal treatment as required by the ECJ ruling,” the coordinators said.
Protestant and Catholic leaders said the day off should be kept for those who were already entitled to it. Unions and the opposition Social Democrats had called for a full public holiday atop the existing thirteen, already generous by EU standards.
The Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession in Austria- a founding member church of The Lutheran World Federation (LWF) during a session of its synod on 9 March, criticised and rejected the new status.
It argued that Good Friday was vital for all Christians, not just for Protestants, stating that Christians believe in the God who became human, “who – out of infinite love – suffered and died on the cross to reconcile people and the world to himself. Jesus’ death is at the heart of the history of salvation. Yet the cross would be meaningless for us without the resurrection. The risen Jesus is the resurrected Christ Crucified, who is recognized by his wounds.”
“Good Friday is of central importance for all Christians, not just for Protestants. In view of the persecution, oppression and disadvantages they suffered up until the First Republic [from 1919], it is the most important public holiday for Protestants when it comes to defining their identity,” stated the resolution of the Synod of the Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession.
Bishop Dr Michael Bunker, the head, says the abolition of Good Friday as a public holiday is an “intervention in Protestants’ freedom of religious practice”.
He wrote to the parishes of the church. In his letter, he stated that the government’s new Good Friday decision “one-sidedly follows economic interests – and has broken a public promise.”
The church was not consulted in the initial decision by the federal government but will “continue to work for a better solution that does not discriminate against any religious community” and will look into legal steps against this legislation Bunker explains.
The Evangelical Churches of the Augsburg has already received solidarity from neighbouring Germany.
Bishop Dr Frank Otfried July, the chairperson of the LWF German National Committee and head of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Wurttemberg, called for ecumenical support urging the Roman Catholic Church;
“to support the appeal of the Evangelical Church of Austria A. B. and advocate for Good Friday to become a public holiday for the whole population.”
Petra Bosse-Huber, bishop for ecumenical relations of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), has also expressed her solidarity with the Austrian church, writing that she encourages “every effort to protect Good Friday as a statutory public holiday for all.”
Meanwhile, business associations had protested against introducing another public holiday in Austria, arguing that Good Friday is a particularly good day for retailers.
The tourism industry also protested to a proposal of exchanging Monday after Pentecost for Good Friday.
Most European countries have changed their conventional attitude towards Good Friday.
Only a year ago, Ireland parliament passed new legislation that saw the lift of their Good Friday alcohol ban. For almost a century, selling alcohol was banned on this day – a legacy of Ireland’s Christian traditions.
According to publicans’ group, the Vintners Federation of Ireland (VFI) – whose interest was clear – lifting the ban could generate as much as 40m euros (£35m; $49m) in sales – plus 7m for the exchequer through VAT and excise duty.
“The Good Friday ban is from a different era,” the group’s chief executive, Padraig Cribben, said. “Like all other businesses who were never subject to a ban, publicans now have a choice to open.”
The Roman Catholic Church, which held considerable influence in the Republic historically, and some, however, stated that they still prefer an alcohol-free Friday on religious grounds.
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