Politics and perils of closing school for religious holidays

May 1, 2014

By Charles C. Haynes
Inside the First Amendment — May 1, 2014

     As New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio will soon discover, adding religious holidays to the school calendar is a slippery slope on the rocky terrain of public school politics.

     Earlier this year, the recently elected mayor announced plans to close schools on two Muslim holidays — Eid-Ul-Fitr (end of Ramadan) and Eid-Ul-Adha (end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca) — and the Lunar New Year, an important holiday for many Asian communities.

     Right out of the box, the Association of Indian Americans expressed great disappointment that Diwali, the festival of lights celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains in India and other South Asian countries, didn’t make the list.

     Deciding who’s in and who’s out on school calendars is a complicated political and legal conundrum in a city (like many other American cities) exploding with religious and cultural diversity.

     Mayor de Blasio is drawing the line at three — the three he thinks most justified — but balks, for now, at adding others for the obvious reason that students don’t learn much if they are not in school.

     But wait. Doesn’t the First Amendment’s Establishment clause bar city officials from closing public schools on religious holidays? Yes, if the purpose is to accommodate religion. No, if the closing serves a legitimate secular or educational purpose.

     The best, and perhaps only, “secular purpose” for shutting schools on a religious holy day is when opening school doesn’t make financial or educational sense. New York City and some other school districts, for example, close on major Jewish holidays because large numbers of Jewish students and teachers will be absent.

     It’s worth noting that most Christians don’t need to push for this accommodation because Protestants baked Christian holy days into the school calendar when they founded public schools in the 19th century. Schools don’t meet on Sunday, Christmas is a national holiday, and many “spring breaks” still fall during Easter week.

     If numbers drive these decisions, where should public schools draw the line? As the population of Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and others grows in many American cities, how can school officials afford to keep adding holy days — even when the numbers are compelling?

     Some school districts have decided the best solution is to say “no” to everyone. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, schools in Hillsborough County, Florida don’t close for any religious holidays (save Christmas, which is also a “secular” holiday).

     Other school districts choose to follow the numbers. In Dearborn, Michigan, for example, where almost half of the students are Muslim, schools close on Muslim holy days.

     It could be argued that Mayor de Blasio has defensible secular reasons for expanding the school calendar to include two Muslim holy days. Although it isn’t entirely clear how many Muslim students are in NYC public schools, most estimates put the number at about 10%. And with Asians comprising some 15% of city students, closing on the Lunar New Year could also make financial and educational sense.

     But here we start down the slippery slope. New York City is also home to many Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains — and they are lobbying hard for recognition. The Diwali Coalition, an interfaith group, recently wrote the mayor arguing that the numbers favor their cause. Asian Indians make up 2.4% of the city’s population — and that doesn’t count thousands more of other racial and ethnic groups that also celebrate Diwali. 

     As religious diversity continues to expand in all parts of America, many school and city officials may be forced to decide that Hillsborough County has landed on the only viable solution.

     But whatever schools decide about the calendar issue, they should do two things to promote fairness and uphold religious freedom:

     First, every public school should have an absentee policy that allows students to miss school on a reasonable number of religious holidays without penalty. The policy should also ensure, to the extent possible, that significant school events aren’t scheduled on major religious holy days. 

     And second, every public school should teach students about religions — including religious holidays — at various times of the year. Religious literacy is critical for sustaining a free society in which people of many faiths and no faith treat one other with civility and respect.

     Religious diversity brings messy new challenges to America. But here’s the good news: The greater the diversity, the more protection for religious freedom.

     As James Madison pointed out many years ago, “For where there is such a variety of sects, there cannot be a majority of any one sect to oppress and persecute the rest.”

Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, DC 20001. Web: religiousfreedomeducation.org Email: chaynes@newseum.org