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In public schools, which holy days are holidays?

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Charles C. Haynes
July 18, 2009

The latest wrangle over religion and schools is in New York City, where the city council recently voted to add two Muslim holy days to the schools’ holiday calendar.


It might not happen because Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who gets the last word, opposes the idea.


“If you close the schools for every single holiday,” the mayor told The New York Times, “there won’t be any school.”


Whatever the outcome, the New York calendar debate is noteworthy as a harbinger of challenges ahead as schools grapple with America’s rapidly expanding religious diversity. Recent conflicts, from Hindus objecting to how they’re treated in textbooks, to Native American students seeking accommodation to wear unshorn hair, to Muslim students asking to be released for Friday prayer, members of minority faiths are speaking up as if to say, “We are here too.”


In and of itself, adding two Muslim holy days—Id al-Fitr and Id al-Adha—to the holiday list wouldn’t have a major impact on the New York school calendar, as these holidays often fall on weekends or during the summer because their timing is determined by the lunar calendar.


But advocates see the change as a symbolic recognition of the city’s growing Muslim population (now estimated at 600,000). Some Christian and Jewish holy days, they argue, are already holidays—so it’s a matter of equal treatment.


“If they want to close the schools for other groups,” said a Methodist minister who supports the proposal, “then the Muslims should have the same right as well.”


Under the First Amendment, however, New York City officials shouldn’t decide the issue based on “equal treatment” or “rights.” Even if the city council wants to take on the unwieldy task of attempting to treat all religions equally, the First Amendment’s establishment clause prohibits government from favoring religion over nonreligion. Moreover, no religious group has a constitutional right to have its holy day made into a holiday for all public school children.


True, the school calendar already accommodates Protestants, who founded public schools. Schools are closed on Sundays and Christmas (which has morphed into a secular national holiday). Spring break, in New York at least, just happens to coincide with Easter.


It’s also true that New York City public schools close for the Jewish holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The practice dates to the 1950s.


But the Christian and Jewish holiday closings can probably be justified under the First Amendment because there are legitimate secular grounds for the policy. In New York City, Christians remain the majority faith and Jews make up approximately 12 percent of the population.


If New York schools are unable to function well due to high absenteeism among students and faculty on certain holy days, then school officials may close for educational reasons without violating the establishment clause.


In considering whether to add Muslim holy days, officials should only look at what’s best for the school system—and for the education of all students. If there’s strong evidence that the academic program suffers on the two Ids because so many students and teachers are absent, then that might justify closing school. But the government’s reasons for adding these or any holy days to the calendar must be civic or secular, with no intent to favor or promote any religion.


The numbers might be there—Muslim students are estimated to be 10-12 percent of the student body. But that’s a question for city officials to investigate and decide. In published accounts of the debate, at least, the city council has yet to advance a well-documented educational rationale for the calendar change.


Meanwhile, there are other First-Amendment-friendly ways to accommodate the religious holiday needs of Muslim students. Give students of all faiths a reasonable number of excused absences for religious holidays, with no penalty and appropriate opportunities to make up missed work. And, if possible, avoid scheduling major exams (such as the New York Regents exam) on any major religious holy day.


Nothing in the First Amendment prohibits public schools from making these and other reasonable accommodations to allow for the free exercise of religion. But any change that affects the education of all students—including one that shortens the school year—should only be made if necessary to help the schools do their job.


On whether to close or not to close, government officials must be careful to ask the right constitutional question.


Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. Web: firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: chaynes@freedomforum.org.

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