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Silent Public Holidays in Germany

Today, March 30, 2018, is Good Friday, a day on which Christians commemorate the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Good Friday is an official public holiday in Germany; however it is also one of the “silent public holidays.” Other days on which a silent public holiday is observed include All Saints’ Day, All Souls’ Day, and Christmas Eve, although there is no uniform list that applies to all sixteen German states. But what are “silent public holidays”? Regulations vary across the German states, but in general states prohibit any kind of public entertainment which disturbs the silence and undermines the seriousness and purpose of the holiday, including dancing and musical performances in all kinds of pubs or other public food establishments. Restrictions on certain activities also depend on the type of silent public holiday, with the most severe restrictions in place for Good Friday. However, prohibitions to ensure the protection of public holidays must be balanced with the constitutional rights to freedom of religion and belief and the freedom of assembly.

Prohibited Activities

All German states have laws for the protection of Sundays and public holidays. The most famous and fought-over ban imposed by these laws to protect silent public holidays is the ban on public dancing. On Good Friday, all German states ban public dancing, although the ban lasts longer in some states than in others. In Bavaria, for example, public dancing is banned from 2 am on Holy Thursday until midnight on Holy Saturday, whereas Berlin limits the ban to the time from 4 am to 9 pm on Good Friday. Other prohibited activities on Good Friday include musical performances, public sports events, public meetings and rallies, gambling, horse racing, and circus performances.

Prohibited activities may also include the public showing of movies that are deemed inappropriate for silent public holidays by the German FSK— a self-regulatory body that rates movies according to their suitability for different age groups. The list of non-approved movies includes over 700 different titles, among them “Mad Max”, “Ghostbusters”, “Police Academy”, “Bonnie and Clyde”, “Some Like It Hot”, “War of the Buttons”, and Monty Python’s “Life of Brian.” On the other hand, the list of movies that are deemed appropriate contains titles like “SAW” and “Fifty Shades of Grey”, among others. The website of the FSK states that the numbers of movies that are considered inappropriate has gone down dramatically since the 1950s and 1960s where 60% of the movies were banned. The number decreased to 50% in the 1970s, 30% in the 1980s, 6% in the 1990s, and has been around 1% since 2000.

The group “Religionsfrei im Revier” (Religion-Free in the Hood)—a group which promotes an ideologically neutral state— was fined for showing the movie Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” on Good Friday. It challenged the decision in court and alleged that the law violated the separation of church and state. The lower courts ruled against the plaintiff. The German Federal Constitutional Court declined to take the case, but offered some general legal pointers nonetheless. It stated that a special permit to show the movie may be granted if there is an “urgent need” for it, provided that it would not unnecessarily disturb the silence of the holiday. The plaintiffs, however, had not even applied for such a special permit.

Punishment and Enforcement

Most state laws provide that a violation of the law is an administrative offense punishable by a fine ranging from €1,000 (about US$1,245) to €10,000 (about US$12,453). Fines are levied on the event organizers and not on individual participants. The prohibitions have to be enforced by the local city administrations. Some cities like Berlin, however, choose not to strictly enforce the dancing ban. Violations must be reported to the police and determined to be administrative offenses, which, according to the official website of Berlin, “will not happen frequently.”

A peace dream of Eastertime. Keppler, Udo J., artist. April 5, 1899. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.28586.

Balancing Constitutional Rights and Requirements

The German Basic Law, the country’s constitution, provides that “Sunday and holidays recognized by the state shall remain protected by law as days of rest from work and of spiritual improvement.” All German states therefore enacted laws that protect Sundays and public holidays. These protections however can conflict with freedom of religion and belief and the freedom of assembly. All laws therefore provide the possibility to grant exemptions on a case-by-case basis. In a decision published in 2016, the Federal Constitutional Court struck down a provision in the Bavarian Holiday Act that stated that exemptions may be granted upon application with the exception of Good Friday. The Court held that prohibitions to protect

… Good Friday as a public holiday and provide it with a qualified atmosphere of peace and quiet are generally compatible with the Constitution. However, the absolute exclusion of exemptions…that applies to this day and according to which exemptions – even exemptions for important reasons –…are barred from the outset…proves to be disproportionate.

Public Opinion

Even though the prohibitions are frequently criticized as not accurately reflecting the secular shift in Germany and are ignored by party-goers, it seems like the dancing ban on silent holidays is there to stay. A poll conducted by the organization YouGov in 2017 found that a majority of Germans (52%) support a dancing ban on Good Friday, although that number is higher among people over sixty years of age (62%). The results are almost identical to the ones identified in the 2016 and 2015 polls, where 53% and 54%, respectively, were in favor of keeping the ban in place.

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