Public Schools Should Accommodate Religious Diversity

Sikh religious observance

by James A. Bacon

Diversity may be our greatest strength, as we commonly hear, but it also creates problems that need to be worked out. A case in point is the public school calendar, which was set when the United States was an overwhelmingly Christian nation. When 99% of the population was Christian, it was simple common sense to organize school breaks around the observance of Christmas and Easter. Today, with immigrants from around the world, public schools are filled with Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and Sikhs whose holy days are not accommodated by school schedules.

The Fairfax County School Board made a stab at compromise, directing teachers to continue holding classes on a list of 15 days marked by non-Christian religious and cultural observances, but to postpone tests and social and athletic events on those days. The board also voted to let teachers take two holy days off, but only if they made up the 16 hours missed, according to an opinion piece by Joyce Winslow published in The Washington Post. Winslow, who is Jewish, was not happy. She writes:

In effect, the board created a two-tier education system by establishing a “separate but equal” policy for minority faiths that is not equal and will continue to add to children’s “feelings of inferiority.” The Supreme Court found this unconstitutional for race in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954. The same should apply for religion.

There’s a lot of off-putting language in Winslow’s piece. For context, she notes Anti-Defamation League claims that white-supremacist propaganda doubled between 2019 and 2020 — as if scheduling winter and spring breaks around Christmas and Easter was akin to expressions of hatred for Jews. She also makes this statement: “To create a scattershot list of “15 religious and cultural observance days,” treat them differently from Christian holy days and term that ‘equality’ is as ridiculous as cluster-bombing a foreign meadow and calling the ensuing quiet ‘peace.’” That’s rhetorical overkill.

But Winslow’s larger point stands. America has become a “world nation,” a melting pot not just of Europeans, all of whom shared a Christian heritage (though divided between Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox), but of peoples from every corner of the world. When the population of non-Christian people reaches a certain point, school districts should make reasonable accommodations.

What’s the trigger point for enacting changes? That’s a tricky question certain to engender a different debate. Is one Sikh sufficient to compel a school to alter its calendar? No. A dozen Sikh families? Five percent of the study body? Hard to say. But at some point accommodations should be made.

The Fairfax County School Board, whose policies I often disagree with, has devised a reasonable halfway step — allowing teachers and students excused absences, and not scheduling important tests and events on days they will be gone. Creating more options is a good thing, not a bad thing.

For some, like Winslow, that’s not good enough. A lot of Christians won’t like the compromise either. And I’ll admit, amidst the raging culture wars in which traditional Christian values are under relentless assault, I can understand the temptation to yield no ground. When commentators like Winslow lump traditional school calendars in with white supremacists, segregationists and bigotry, I can sympathize with the temptation to respond with a hearty, “Bite me!”

But there are larger issues at stake. As adherents to a faith tradition, Christians should evince sympathy for people from other faith traditions. In the pre-secular era, those differences loomed large. In the modern era, when the forces of secularism are steamrolling religious worldviews (in the Western world at least), Christians should seek to align themselves with other faith traditions. Making modest changes to school calendars seems a small price to pay to win friends and allies.

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9 responses to “Public Schools Should Accommodate Religious Diversity”

  1. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
    James Wyatt Whitehead

    This past winter Loudoun County Public Schools added Yom Kippur, Diwali, and Eid al Fitr as NAMED religious holidays. Christmas and Easter are not specifically named as days of religious holidays. They have been secularized as Winter and Spring break. Why is that? You can find this same exact intolerance of Christian holidays in many of our school districts.

    I do recall a small number students taking the day off for Eid and for Yom Kippur. I cannot recall students missing a day for Diwali. I remember that if students wanted to take this day off they could. It was an excused absence. The school district had very flexible attendance policies to allow for religious and cultural practices. I can even remember a senior student missing 6 weeks of school to return to India to be married. It was excused.

  2. tmtfairfax Avatar

    Clearly, there needs to be recognition of other religions’ holy days. And believers’ needs must be reasonably accommodated. But if we call some holy days by their real names, we should call all of them by their names. But what can one expect when a presidential candidate and now President selected an open religious bigot as his running mate.

  3. Baconator with extra cheese Avatar
    Baconator with extra cheese

    I will be attending my local school board meeting and demanding Kwanzaa as a student holiday or I will accuse each board member of being a white supremacist.
    I also pose that the state should give all state workers Kwanzaa off as a stance against white supremacy… and all banks and the stock markets should be closed as well….
    I’m seeing how fun woke can be.

  4. Eric the half a troll Avatar
    Eric the half a troll

    Or we could really separate “church” from “state” and not have any public school holidays aligned with any religious celebrations. That seems to be the fairest approach.

    1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
      Dick Hall-Sizemore

      This is the approach I was leaning to. There can be a winter break that coincidentally aligns with Christmas and Hanukkah. Since Christmas has become so secularized, kids of all faiths consider it a holiday of sorts. As for Easter, pick a period in March or early April for a spring break. It may or may not coincide with Easter some years. (When I was going to school, there were no days off for Easter.)

      Absences related to religious observances should be excused. Because there are so many religions involved, it may be difficult to arrange tests and other school functions around religious holidays. Students who miss because of religious holidays should be given a chance to make work up.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        Yep. Either all or none and can’t play that game of “5” or “3” … Best policy IMHO is no days for any religions but don’t schedule tests and other on obvious religious holidays.

        Public schools have difficult issues like this that private schools don’t necessarily have or they can do things public schools cannot or should not.

      2. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive

        I believe we should accommodate any religious vernal celebrations by any religion so long as it involves chocolate bunnies. Scratch that. Just chocolate.

  5. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    Yes, yes. And, the best accommodation for all is no accommodation to any.

  6. vicnicholls Avatar

    I know a lot of Indians that celebrate Christmas – its not a far off idea from some Indian holidays in secular terms. They also use it to go home and get married or visit family. That being said, Christmas has become secular, use it interchangeably for all groups and stop refusing to call it Christmas or wish people Merry Christmas. I wish friends who have a holiday the best of enjoyment, use the name. Do the same in return. Simple. It can also be those who want to take off a holiday can, but don’t have to if they don’t want to. So leave Christmas break/winter break (or whatever you want to call it), and if you want to call spring break that, go for it. Lets face it, Easter is Good Friday (night) and then Sunday morning. Its not really the secular festival (yet) that Christmas is.

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