Schools should be sensitive to religions of minorities

Sunday, September 20, 1998

Forget the home run race. Litigation has now surpassed baseball as America's favorite national pastime.

The latest example of how quick we are to “call a lawyer” comes from Ohio, where a school district may face a lawsuit for closing school on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — two Jewish holy days that fall in September this year.

School officials argue that absenteeism is too high on those days to hold classes in any meaningful way. Some 15% of the students in the district are Jewish — and most of them stay home or attend synagogue for two of Judaism's most significant holy days. In some schools, absences run as high as 21%.

A group of parents — with the ironic name of Parents for Fairness — objects, claiming that closing the schools these two days would favor the Jewish faith over other faiths in violation of the First Amendment.

Who's right?

It's true that the First Amendment's establishment clause requires that public-school officials be neutral among religions and between religion and non-religion. The school board can't close the schools on Jewish holy days because it wants to favor Judaism.

But school officials have a good civic (or secular) purpose for their action: Too many students would be absent those days to conduct a normal school day. The closings are meant to serve the educational needs of all the students, not to advance a particular religion. Just because the policy also benefits Jewish kids doesn't make it unconstitutional.

It would be different if the district had a much smaller Jewish population. In that case, the best approach would be to allow Jewish students to be excused for services and require them to make up the missed work.

Beyond the legal issues, Parents for Fairness might want to think more about what they mean by “fairness.” After all, the school calendar already favors the majority faith, since no classes are held on Sunday and Christmas is a national holiday. Most Christians don't need to worry about the school schedule.

By contrast, minority faiths have to work around the existing calendar. Jews who observe the Sabbath have a problem participating in Friday-night ballgames and Saturday activities. Muslim students who wish to attend community prayer mid-day on Fridays sometimes have a hard time getting released from school.

This built-in advantage should be all the more reason for school officials to be sensitive to the religious needs of students from minority faiths. Of course, that rarely means closing school. But it does mean finding ways to accommodate requests where possible.

Rosh Hashanah, by the way, is the Jewish New Year, a time of celebration but also of judgment. According to Jewish tradition, during the 10 days following Rosh Hashanah God examines the deeds of the people. For Jews, this is a time of profound self-examination and repentance.

At the end of this period, on Yom Kippur — the Day of Atonement — God makes a final judgment and forgives those who have truly repented. Many Jews fast for 25 hours and spend much of the day in the synagogue, praying for forgiveness.

Repentance, judgment, forgiveness. Nowadays a little time off for these things seems like a very good idea.