Religious diversity, school calendars and the quest for fairness

Jan 28, 2016

By Charles C. Haynes
Inside the First Amendment

     The school board in Howard County, Maryland took the religious-diversity plunge last week by voting unanimously to close schools for the Hindu festival of Diwali, the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha and the Asian celebration of Lunar New Year.

     Students in the suburban Maryland district already get days off for Christmas, Good Friday, Easter Monday, Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah.

     Welcome to the new religious America — a pluralistic society where Protestants are no longer the majority and people of every conceivable faith and belief are increasingly visible in the public square.

     For many religious and ethnic communities, a place on the school calendar symbolizes a place at the American table. Petitioning to add a religious or cultural holiday to the calendar is tantamount to asking public schools to finally live up to government neutrality among religions promised by the First Amendment.

     Protestants, of course, have had pride of place on the school calendar from the beginning. As primary movers behind the founding of public education in the 19th century, Protestant leaders baked in accommodations for their faith: No school on Sunday, major Christian holidays off, and — until struck down by the Supreme Court in the 1960s — Protestant prayers and devotional Bible reading led by teachers.

     Under the First Amendment as now applied by the courts, public schools must treat students of all faiths and beliefs with fairness and respect while remaining neutral among religions and between religion and non-religion. This means, among other things, that religious holidays can't be added to the school calendar for religious reasons — or simply to accommodate a particular faith. Religious holidays may only be added if there is a legitimate secular or educational purpose for doing so.

     That's why the choices made in Howard County are supposed to be based on numbers: If school officials can demonstrate that student and staff absentee rates will be high on certain holidays, then they have a valid secular argument for closing school on those days. But if the numbers aren't there, the district is vulnerable to a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of adding holy days to the calendar.

     Even with a clearly articulated secular purpose, Howard County will still face a conundrum as religious diversity expands in the district: When other groups ask for their holidays to be added to the calendar, can school officials say no after saying yes to others?

     Howard County school board members are painfully aware of the "all or nothing" dilemma. Last fall, they considered denying requests for more holidays by removing Jewish holy days from the calendar and leaving in place only the closings mandated by state law: Christmas, Good Friday and Easter Monday. Not surprisingly, that proposal triggered a backlash that led to last week's decision to go in the opposite direction by adding three more religious and cultural holidays celebrated by significant numbers of people in the school district.

     If somehow the historical slate could be wiped clean, an equitable long-term solution might be no school closings on religious holidays, with the proviso that students of all faiths have a reasonable number of excused absences without penalty. For this arrangement to be seen as fair, however, the State of Maryland would need to repeal the law requiring school closings during Easter (Christmas would stay since it is also a national holiday).

     As Howard County can attest, school calendar decisions can be messy and complicated in what is now one of the most religiously diverse societies in the world. But the changing calendar is also a healthy sign that the United States is learning how to level the First Amendment playing field for citizens of all faiths and beliefs.

     It's about time. Religious monopolies like the one enjoyed for so long by Protestants in public schools are antithetical to religious freedom. We can disagree on how best to move from monopoly to diversity, but we should work together toward the shared goal of fairness and equity for all.

     After all, the future of America is going to look very much like the school calendar in Howard County.

Charles C. Haynes is vice president of the Newseum Institute and founding director of the Religious Freedom Center. E-mail: chaynes@newseum.orgWeb: Twitter: @hayneschaynes.