Holidaze: As Religious Diversity Increases, School Districts Debate Calendar Additions

Increased demand for a more diverse calendar has pushed school districts to potentially prioritize some holidays over others.

As school districts around the country become increasingly diverse, some have begun to debate closing for non-Christian holidays, The Washington Post reports.

For example, minority communities in Montgomery and Howard counties, both in Maryland, have requested that school calendars recognize more major religious and cultural holidays.

In most municipalities, schools close for Christian holidays. Some close for Jewish holidays. But few recognize the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, or the Hindu holiday of Diwali. Increased demand for a more diverse calendar has pushed school districts to potentially prioritize some holidays over others.

“The Howard County Board of Education is scheduled to consider a proposal Thursday that would keep schools open on the Jewish holy days of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah for the first time in more than three decades,” wrote The Post’s Donna St. George.

That’s irked community members. According to The Post, “hundreds” attended a public hearing on the matter last month to protest the proposal; St. George also notes that the county had originally closed for the holidays due to significant absenteeism.

Further complicating the matter: Maryland law requires schools to close on Christian holidays, including Christmas, Good Friday and Easter.

The First Amendment Center’s Charles Haynes told St. George that schools should be willing to recognize non-Christian holidays too.

“It really isn’t about religious holidays in public schools,” Haynes said. “It’s about what kind of country are we? Are we a country where everyone is treated fairly, or is the deck really stacked for those who have been here the longest, or who have the most members, or who have dominated our institutions?”

Haynes makes a valid point. Last April, Pew Research Center reported that Islam and so-called “other religions” are the fastest-growing faith groups in the U.S. Christians, meanwhile, are on track to shrink as a share of the American population.

If this trend continues, school districts should indeed carefully consider proposals to close for non-Christian holidays. Public schools can’t be truly secular unless they provide students of all faiths—and no faith—equitable treatment. Given the persistence of anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic prejudice, it seems wise, too, to scrutinize the motivations of officials who refuse to recognize certain holidays.

But schools are also obligated to provide a sound education to students, and that means doors need to be open on a consistent basis. Schools simply can’t close for every holiday, no matter how meaningful that day may be to those who celebrate it.

Maryland law, however, is real cause for concern. Its requirement that schools close on major Christian holidays is discriminatory on its face, and will only create further difficulties for public schools as they attempt to meet the needs of increasingly pluralistic communities. It may have once made sense to mandate schools to close for Christian holidays, but that idea is outdated and could be interpreted as a preference for one faith over others.

Closing (or not) on religious holidays is a tricky situation for school boards to navigate. Regardless of demographics, however, all districts should make an effort to accommodate everyone and use common sense. Don’t schedule tests or big project deadlines on major religious holidays and don’t penalize students who miss class for religious reasons.

Ultimately, holiday closings should be based on potential absenteeism. It’s an imperfect system, but that’s the surest way to include minority groups and safeguard the First Amendment.