Should Public Schools Close for Christian, Jewish, and Muslim Holidays?

Public school administrators have to consider numerous factors when deciding when class ought to be in session. Add religion into the mix of considerations and rational planning becomes impossible. If compelled to balance competing claims from all religious believers (and, for the sake of fairness, nonbelievers) with practical matters such as weather, national civic holidays, and children’s (and adults’) needs for days off, then the absurdity of interrupting education for religious holidays becomes immediately apparent.

Consider a few episodes that tip the scale of schedule-setting toward the nonsensical. In March 2015, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that, starting the following year, public school students would get days off to observe two Islamic holidays. “The Muslim faith is one of the fastest growing in this city and in this nation,” de Blasio explained. “Many, many city students celebrate Eid-al Fitr at the end of Ramadan and Eid al-Adha at the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.” Yet if raw demographic calculations like this determine when students receive instruction, then what if it were demonstrated that there were more nonbelievers than Muslims in New York? Would Darwin Day (on or around February 12) or the National Day of Reason (the first Thursday in May) then get added to the holiday calendar? What about the many, many more city students who do not observe Eid-al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha? What about other groups who claim their beliefs require this or that day off? Where does it end?

Around the same time de Blasio flaunted his “respect for one of the great faiths of this earth,” teachers in Cranston, Rhode Island, complained that respect for one religion amounted to disrespect for another. Teachers’ requests to observe the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah the previous fall were approved by the city’s school department, but teachers were not allowed to take off the Christian holiday of Good Friday, according to the Cranston Teachers’ Alliance. The school committee had agreed in June 2014 to hold classes on Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, and Good Friday, but after 2015’s bad Good Friday, the teachers’ union wanted the religious holidays reinstated. Equity was “the big concern here,” insisted a union representative. (It might bear mentioning that Cranston’s population is predominantly Christian and only about 3 percent Jewish. If all Christian teachers opted to take time off on a holiday they’d previously agreed to work, it would essentially mean closing the schools, which would not be the case if all Jewish teachers took Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. Even so, this is hardly the sole consideration or shouldn’t be anyway.)

Perhaps not irrelevantly, after a federal judge in 2012 ruled that a prayer mural at Cranston High School West was unconstitutional, the student on behalf of whom the American Civil Liberties Union had sued became the target of derision from local lawmakers and received violent threats. At the time, the school committee wanted the mural addressed to “Our Heavenly Father” to remain in place, according to the teachers’ union. Equity for some more than others seems to be the policy.

Of course, kerfuffles over holding school on religious holidays really reveal conniving liberals’ antireligious schemes—at least in the view of certain Fox-News types. After Boston, Massachusetts, endured its snowiest winter on record, and thus an unusually high number of snow days, the nearby town of Easton decided to hold classes on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Good Friday rather than extend the school year even later into summer. As a guest on the March 16, 2015, episode of the Fox program Outnumbered, Representative Sean Duffy of Wisconsin spied a secularist plot, which he outlined thusly: “Don’t let any good crisis go to waste, and if you want to take religion out of the public square, look at Boston and look at all the snow and say, ‘What a great reason now, we can take these religious holidays out of our school system… It’s using the crisis to the liberal benefit.’” The hosts agreed, with Jedediah Bila recommending starting school earlier instead of convening on holidays and Andrea Tantaros summarizing confusedly, “This is what happens when liberal academic Boston meets ethnic Boston.” Forget basic realities like already-arranged summer jobs for teachers and already-planned summer vacations for families, contracted work hours, and the already-complicated logistics of getting kids to school on time—not to mention that teaching students might take precedence over closing for holidays that not all of them celebrate anyway. No, what matters, in this line of thinking, is respecting religion.

Perhaps it is unfair to have purportedly nondenominational breaks, like many winter and summer recesses, coinciding with Christian holidays such as Christmas and Easter without similarly accommodating Jews, Muslims, atheists and all other non-Christians, and disregarding all other practical considerations to make sure doors stay closed on a growing number of religious holidays is no solution. Certainly, having schools involved in assessing which holidays require attending religious services and prohibit work (and thus can be taken off by the observant) and which others do not, as happened in Cranston, is not a viable way to run a public school system, and neither is closing on more and more days as certain religious groups increase their population shares in certain places, as happened in New York City.

I’ll end on a personal note. As a non-Catholic who did time at a Catholic school, I recall no consideration of days off for non-Christian religious holidays. Perhaps my alma mater provided one of those inadvertent useful lessons that parochial schools sometimes do: let religious institutions close their doors on whatever supposedly holy days they want and, conversely, let nonreligious institutions, which is what public schools are, or should be, close for civic holidays like Presidents’ Day (as well as snow days) and stay out of the religion business altogether. After all, that’s the only practical way to treat various religions equitably and with the respect they deserve.