N.Y. appeals court: District can’t honor religious-holidays pact with teachers

Tuesday, February 8, 2000

A New York appeals court has ruled that a public school district cannot enforce a policy that would have allowed teachers to receive paid vacation days for religious observances.

In late 1997, the Port Washington Union Free School District told teachers that it would no longer abide by a religious-holidays provision that was included in a collective- bargaining agreement between the school district and the Port Washington Teachers Association. The provision allowed members of the teachers association to receive any religious holiday off with pay.

Six teachers and the Port Washington Teachers Association sued the district in state court seeking arbitration of the agreement. The school district, however, argued that the holidays agreement was unconstitutional and sought a stay of arbitration. A state trial court agreed.

Late last month, the New York Appellate Division agreed with the school district and said the holidays provision could not be enforced.

Citing U.S. Supreme Court precedent, Judge Lawrence J. Bracken said there “is no firmer or more settled principle of Establishment Clause jurisprudence than that prohibiting the use of the State’s power to enforce one to profess a religious belief.”

“Here, the Religious Holidays Provision rewarded members of the Association who claimed to be religiously observant with more paid days off than those afforded to agnostics, atheists, and members who were less observant,” Bracken wrote for the appeals court. “As a result, the Religious Holidays Provision violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the Federal Constitution.”

Melinda G. Gordon, an attorney in New York City who represents the Teachers Association, was unavailable for comment regarding the court’s ruling.