Sunday, December 8, 2013

Happy Holidays to some...

In Maryland, state law describes how public school holidays should be timed with Christmas and Easter. Many county public schools have since then also provided days off in recognition for Jewish holy days. Montgomery public schools made this adjustment in the 1970s. In light of two religions receiving their holy days as school holidays, today, Muslims in Montgomery County are calling for public schools to recognize one of the two major Islamic holy days as well.

Montgomery County public school officials have explained that high rates of absence on a day are necessary for consideration as to whether to add it as an official school holiday. One of the two major Muslim holy days, Eid al-Adha, saw that 5.6 percent of students and 5 percent of teachers were absent this year. To compare, the previous Tuesday had absence percentages of 3.2 (students) and 4.2 (teachers) respectively. Some Muslims, however, are calling these figures insubstantial because the percentages of other public school workers that were absent (like bus drivers and cafeteria workers) are missing and would help show that enough people are absent to warrant a school holiday.

It is important to note that Muslim kids are not directly harmed when exercising their religion and not attending school on either major holiday. Muslim holidays are labeled as non-testing days and related absences are excused. The Superintendent, Joshua P. Starr, also explained that the schools and teachers help students complete any work that was missed. Muslim families still feel that their kids should not have to make a choice between exercising their religious beliefs and missing instruction.  
School holidays in observance of religious holy days raise some very important questions as the situation above demonstrates. On one hand, there is a potential establishment issue of designating certain holy days as holidays while others go unremarked. The majority opinion of the establishment clause in Everson v. Board of Education explains that the establishment clause at least means that “Neither a state nor the Federal Government…can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another.” A definitive argument can be made that giving Christian and Jewish holy days off either aids these religions or preferences these religions above others, like say Islam. In light of this, some schools, like SUNY Stony Brook, a public university, are simply not giving any religious holidays off. This however, has been met with much anger. Some other school districts like that of New York City are moving in the opposite direction, toward ‘respecting’ Islam holy days and having them off. But would this just add Islam to the list of religions that are aided/preferred?

On the other hand, a free exercise case could be made for having Muslim holy days as designated school holidays. As the Muslim parents noted, missing school in order to observe Eid al-Adha and other days places a burden upon their free exercise. The burden is that the kids potentially miss important instruction and also may feel anxiety upon making a choice between school and religion.

Overall, I believe that the Montgomery County Schools should not make any of the Muslim holy days school holidays due to the current available statistics. For example, if the Christian holiday of Christmas was no longer a school holiday and Christians decided celebrate this day and not go to school, over 50% of Montgomery County School students, teachers, and other workers would most likely be absent. Operating schools with this many people absent is not only economically/socially useless but also probably ridiculously difficult, so the school might as well coincide this date with winter break. Unfortunately, while 5-6% could constitute a lot of people missing depending on overall numbers, it is not large enough nor outside the norms of non-holy days for the school to shut down and deem this day a holiday. Now the precise percentage that warrants shut down is obviously another issue for debate, but I think that if the public school system bases its decision on percentages, then the absences on days like Eid al-Adha must be higher. Absence rates are a secular determining factor and basing school holidays off of them might have the effect of giving preference to certain religions in society, but it is not the purpose. As McGowan v. Maryland, which challenged Sunday closing laws, pointed out, “it is equally true that the "Establishment" Clause does not ban federal or state regulation of conduct whose reason or effect merely happens to coincide or harmonize with the tenets of some or all religions.”

With regards to the free exercise issue, there is certainly a burden upon Muslims in this community. Unfortunately, I think that accommodating Muslim students’ absences is the best that can be done because if the school system gives an Islamic holiday off because ‘its only fair,’ then the slippery slope principal comes into effect. If other religious groups start making cases for their holy days to be school holidays, then how much longer is the school year going to be drawn out?

In conclusion, I believe that the establishment issues raised in this situation are moot so long as the school continues to give days off based on these rates. Accordingly, perhaps days will eventually have to be re-evaluated given the changing nature of religious affiliations and people over time. With regards to free exercise, accommodation is the best the Montgomery School Systems can provide at this point in time. Due to the 98,328 public schools, the issue of religious holidays as school holidays has many important widespread ramifications. 


Liz L. said...

Muslim holidays should not become school holidays. I do not see this as a burden to free exercise. People of all religions are forced to make choices. For example, Catholics do not have days off of work for Holy Days of obligation and, thus, must choose how to meet their religious and societal obligations. Also, Jewish holidays (such as Chanukah and Passover (unless these holidays coincide with Christmas and Easter respectively) are not school holidays. The secular purpose of the law is historical (as Maryland was founded as a Catholic state) and economical (as Easter and Christmas are major shopping periods). Therefore, this is not a law that directly affects Muslims.

Tyler J said...

I agree with Cori that Muslim students should not be given their holy days off in this situation, until the numbers show that the amount of absences from the school system in general negatively effect the school district. In my school district at home, we did not used to have Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur off until the school district began loosing money from too many absences.
I respectfully disagree with Liz that easter and Christmas grant an economical reason for school to be canceled. I do not believe that should play into the matter at all. In addition, I think it is only convenient that Hanukkah and Passover fall at at the same time as the Christian holidays that have extend time off, as they are not the significant holidays in the Jewish religion.
Quite frankly, if we were to only give holy days off, which I think is perfectly legitimate, there should only be one day given for Christmas, Easer, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Eid al-Adha, and any other holy day that causes significant absences. The burden on religious exercise must be balanced with the burden of the school to shut down. Also, I don't see establishment as an issue here as long as we are focusing on the numbers.

Yessica M said...

I agree that Muslims should not be given their days off of school. The school district policy is secular that it takes into consideration numbers of potential students and staff that would be absent. Considering that it is not that many that would be absent, it is not enough for the schools to consider it a day off. It is really unfortunate because it is a majority v. minority thing and technically the minority should be protected all the time from the majority but in this case I find myself troubled to favor the minority. Mostly because schools would technically be dismissed for various days in the school year. The parents who think that there is a burden because the student has to decide between religion and academics need to understand that they are actually being helped at the end of the day. The schools are allowing these students to be excused for their absence and teachers have made themselves available to help students with what they have missed. I think that this is an example of the school district being tolerable of the situation, rather than requiring the students to definitely attend school on their holy days, the district accurately accommodated so that they can be excused and even gives the opportunity for the student to go over material they might have missed. I also do not see an Establishment issue arising from this.

Sayeh B said...

I don't think it's fair to take Catholic and Jewish holidays off, and not take off Muslim holidays as well. Disregarding winter break, which just happens to coincide with Christmas, if other religious holidays are recognized by the school, then Muslim ones should be as well. It is placing a burden on Muslim students' and faculties' right to free exercise because they are forced to choose between practicing their religion and attending classes. I don't think that there is enough of a state interest in not adding a couple of extra days off during the school year. But if the school is unwilling to recognize all of the religious holidays, then maybe none of them should be recognized at all.

Jennie M. said...

I agree with what has been said before me and I think the school is doing a good job of making it easy for Muslim students to miss classes without being set back too much.

I am, however, persuaded by Sayeh's point that it seems inconsistent to give some religious practitioners holy days off from school and deny others this accommodation. Missing school is a burden on their free exercise and the Muslim families are asking for a very limited amount of time off. I think the school should consider accommodating Muslim families further by cancelling school on their holy days.

Gabby D. said...

I agree with Sayeh and think that not giving the Muslim's their day off is unconstitutional and a burden on their free exercise. It's not fair that this school is accommodating two religions and refusing to accommodate another just because it is a minority religion. The point of the constitution is to protect the minority from being overruled by the majority. I also agree with Sayeh's point that if the school is going to deny certain denominations, they cannot award any sects the days off.
I think the numbers are irrelevant and we must abide by the constitutional concept of neutrality among religions, where one religion is never favored over another.

Kaela Diomede said...

I too think that this is a burden to free exercise. I think that if the school is going to recognize days off for other religions, then all religions have to be considered. This would be to prevent choosing religion over religion. I understand that it is difficult to recognize all religions and public schools have requirements for the amount of days that the school has to be open, but I think that the Muslim's have a valid argument. I do appreciate the accommodation and the teachers working with the children with the work that they would be missing, but it is unfair that they have to choose between faith and education.

Benjamin S said...

I think having winter break when it is makes sense. It is a good bookend between semesters and covers a holiday where most students would be absent regardless. However, I do believe that Muslim and other religious holidays should be taken into consideration. Yes, the school accommodates the best that it can under the circumstances, but in the end of the day it is still unconstitutional and the minority is not being properly represented or defended.