The Supreme Court yesterday rejected a constitutional challenge to Maryland's law requiring public schools to close on Good Friday, sidestepping a church-state controversy that occurs throughout the nation.

A former Montgomery County teacher who is Jewish had argued that the state law "sends a message of inclusion to Christian schoolchildren and a message of exclusion to their Jewish, Muslim, and non-believing classmates." The justices refused to hear an appeal of Judith Koenick's case against local school board officials, leaving intact a lower court ruling that the law does not infringe the First Amendment's required separation of church and state.

The high court's action yesterday sets no national precedent in this difficult area of government involvement with religion. Koenick's lawyers noted that an Illinois law ordering schools to observe Good Friday had been struck down by the 7th Circuit, and they argued that courts nationwide are torn over whether schools and local governments can recognize Good Friday. Meanwhile, a challenge to an Indiana law that makes Good Friday a holiday for state workers is pending.

In a day of varied court business, the justices also let prison officials in Alabama continue segregating prisoners who are HIV-positive. The inmates, who have been excluded from recreational, religious and educational programs, sued under a federal law protecting disabled people from discrimination. But lower courts rejected the inmates' claims, saying they are not covered by the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 because there is a "significant risk" the AIDS virus would be spread throughout the prisons if the infected inmates were integrated.

Further, in an indication of the potential sweep of a decision last week cutting back on federal power over the states, the justices also ordered lower courts to reconsider whether state agencies can be sued under a federal law requiring employers to give men and women equal pay for equal work. The court ruled last week that states are immune from lawsuits based on federal age discrimination law, saying Congress lacked grounds to override states' usual immunity from federal lawsuits.

Yesterday's brief decisions in cases from Illinois and New York may ultimately mean that the same reasoning that led the justices to protect states from lawsuits by older workers may shield them from being sued under the Equal Pay Act.

In the Good Friday dispute, Maryland's law traces to 1865 and requires all public schools to close from the Friday before Easter through the Monday after Easter. About a dozen other states designate the day that commemorates the crucifixion of Jesus as a legal holiday, although most do not require schools to close.

Koenick observed that while Montgomery County schools have in recent years allowed holidays on Yom Kippur (the Jewish Day of Atonement) and Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), those closings are not mandated by the state. "[B]y recognizing Christian holy days as public school holidays while failing to accord a similar status to any other religion's holy days," her lawyers wrote, the state law "creates a denominational preference in favor of the Christian faith." Koenick also maintained the state lacked any neutral criteria for determining when school should be closed, for example a factual study of absences.

In its decision siding with school officials, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit noted that the First Amendment's establishment clause "was intended to erect a wall of separation between church and state" and concluded the holiday law has a clear secular purpose: to avoid holding school on days when many teachers and students would be absent.

The appeals court added in its ruling last year, "Although the statute makes it possible for students and teachers to attend services around Easter, it in no way promotes or advances this cause."

The American Jewish Congress filed a "friend of the court" brief supporting Koenick's appeal, saying, "Schoolchildren are especially susceptible to the influence of state and local government authority."

Lawyers for school board officials emphasized that the holiday reflects nonreligious concerns about high absenteeism and noted that the Maryland law does not mention religion or worship, unlike the Illinois Good Friday law enacted to promote the holy day. In spurning the case of Koenick v. Felton, the justices yesterday made no comment and issued no recorded vote.