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."