Nyc Schools And Muslim Holidays

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THE PLANK JULY 9, 2009

Nyc Schools And Muslim Holidays

Last week, the New York City Council passed a
resolution
to close public schools on two Muslim holidays. The resolution
asks that the city's Department of Education recognize the holidays, and that
the state government amend education law to do the same. If Mayor Michael Bloomberg
approves the resolution--that is, if the state senate gets its act together and
restores
his control
of the schools, or if the Bloomberg-friendly school board
formed in the interim signs off on the measure--the holy celebrations would be
recognized, in addition to several Christian and Jewish ones already on the
calendar, as official holidays. Bloomberg, however, is opposed to the
resolution. "If you close the schools for every single holiday, there won't be
any school," The New York Times
quoted him as saying.

Some in New York
City's Muslim community have hinted that, if Bloomberg
doesn't support the resolution, he could lose its support in an election year.
"[T]he mayor needs to recognize the social and political cost of saying no,"
Adem Carroll, executive director of the Muslim Consultative Network, an
advocacy group, told New York's
The Jewish Week. Other observers have
suggested that approval would be an important symbolic act. "[I]f a Jewish
mayor of New York could endorse these Muslim holidays, he will send his own
message of reconciliation around the world," Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, chairman of the Cordoba
Initiative
, an organization that works to improve relations between
the Muslim world and the West, wrote Wednesday on The Washington Post's religion blog.

But
what of the resolution's legal ramifications? From a constitutional
perspective, should public schools recognize religious holidays? Under what
circumstances? According to the book God in the Classroom, which provides an
overview of debates about religion in education, "the U.S. Supreme Court
has not issued a definitive ruling on matters of religious holidays in
schools." So I asked a few experts to
weigh in.

Erwin
Chemerinsky, dean of University of California-Irvine's law school (and a TNR contributor), explains that
school systems must strike a delicate balance: honoring the First Amendment's
free exercise clause, which allows people to practice the religions they
choose, and the establishment clause, which prevents the government from
favoring certain religions over others. "Either they should
give no religious holidays... or they should give [them to] at least all major
religions and Muslim holidays should be included," Chemerinsky says.
"If they choose the former, then students should be given an excused absence
if they miss for religious reasons" to allow free exercise. If school systems choose
the latter, they would have to prove that they weren't "establishing
religion" by granting official holidays to only some faiths, which would
be inevitable considering how many religions are now practiced in the United States.
Schools "certainly should try not to discriminate among religions,"
Chemerinsky adds.

Charles
Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center
in Washington,
argues that saying schools shouldn't honor any religious holidays is a
"non-starter" because school calendars are already based on the
Christian year. "The calendar has already been set up to
accommodate the majority faith," Haynes says, pointing out that Christmas
is a national holiday. "To turn around and say, 'We're not going to do anything
religious '... they would have to think about graduation and football games, [and
ask], 'Are we not going to interfere with any religion?' ... They can't rewrite
our history."
Instead, Haynes says, schools should seek to accommodate students' religious
exercise but not affect everyone in a system in doing so. "Accommodation
shouldn't be disruption," he adds. "It would be
unconstitutional for a school system to sit around and decide which religions
to make feel good by giving them days off."

Under
the establishment clause, to officially designate religious holidays as days
off, school systems have to prove that there's a pressing civic/secular reason
for the decision, Haynes explains. According to The Jewish Week, "Public
schools [in New York City] began closing for the Jewish High Holidays in the
1950s, when the percentage of Jewish teachers and substitutes citywide was so
high, some schools had to combine classes or hold assemblies to compensate for their
absence." Haynes says this sort of argument--that schools can't function
effectively or efficiently on certain religious holidays--would likely stand up
in a court because it would show that closing schools on those days was
"good public policy."

Supporters of the current resolution report that about 10
percent of New York City's
public school students are Muslim--not an insubstantial number. Still, if the schools
adopt the Muslim holidays, Haynes says "there will be people lining up to
sue saying, 'You can't change the calendar just to accommodate a particular
religious group'--and they might well win--[unless] there is a record of how
this will be good for everyone. ... Then they might be in fairly good
shape."

--Seyward Darby

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