School must arrange calendars for practical, not religious, reasons

Sunday, September 12, 1999

For American Jews, these first days of school are also the High Holy Days, the beginning of the spiritual year.

This coincidence of calendars can be a dilemma for school officials, particularly in districts with large Jewish populations. That's because Jewish students and teachers are very likely to be absent when Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur fall on weekdays.

The solution in many places is closing down the schools on these two holidays rather than trying to function in the absence of so many teachers and students. Sounds reasonable enough.

But when a school district near Cincinnati — where some 15% of the students are Jewish — decided to close for the two holy days, the ACLU sued. The court battle promises to be long and unpleasant.

Both sides appear to agree that public schools may close on religious holidays if they have a clear secular purpose for doing so. But the ACLU argues that this district is closing schools only to favor Judaism over other faiths, a violation of the Establishment clause of the First Amendment.

School officials respond that the closings have nothing to do with favoring any religion but are solely because of the absentee rate. If the schools were to remain open, they argue, many of the students left in the classroom would have substitute teachers. And the large number of absent students would make meaningful instruction difficult.

As trivial as all this might sound, the case is important because of the First Amendment principle involved.

On the one hand, public schools shouldn't be in the business of tailoring their calendar to the needs of religious communities. Not only would that be impractical, given that there are hundreds of religious groups and holidays, but it would also be an impermissible government promotion of religion.

On the other hand, public schools are free to devise a calendar that serves their educational mission. The fact that such a calendar may benefit a particular religious community doesn't necessarily make it unconstitutional.

In other words, a high rate of absenteeism is a legitimate secular or educational reason for closing schools on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. But the school district must now show in court that it did not intend to favor Judaism by this policy.

Press reports about the case indicate that Muslims, Hindus and other minority faiths are upset by the fact that the district appears to favor one religion over others by closing for Jewish holidays. (Many Christian groups, of course, are already accommodated by the school calendar.)

But numbers do count in cases like this. In New York City, some schools would be almost empty if school remained open on Yom Kippur. And in Dearborn, Mich. — where there is a large Arab-American population — I would imagine that some schools close down for Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, two major Muslim holidays that may fall within the school year.

Whatever the outcome of the Ohio case, school officials will still be able to plan the calendar in the way that best fulfills the educational mission of the schools. But they should always have clear educational, secular (or civic) reasons for doing so.

Whether or not schools close down on various religious holidays, teachers and administrators need to be aware of the religious groups in their community. Teachers should know, for example, why some students may fast at certain times of the year and why others may need to be excused from classroom parties, as well as any number of other things that are part of their students' religious lives.

Of course, it is first and foremost the responsibility of parents and students to inform teachers about any special needs and requirements that might have an impact on class participation. But schools might also find it useful to provide teachers with information about the various religious communities represented in their classrooms.

An excellent resource is America's Religions: An Educator's Guide to Beliefs and Practices, published by Teacher Ideas Press (1-800-237-6124, ext. 1). Written by three university scholars, the book summarizes the basic tenets and practices of the major religious traditions (and a few minor ones). Particularly helpful are the sections in each chapter on “common misunderstandings and stereotypes” and “classroom concerns.”

The more we know about one another, the better able we are to negotiate our differences in America's increasingly diverse and crowded public square.