There is a new conflict over religious rights in public education in New Jersey where Muslim families demanded an official holiday for Eid al-Adha. The meeting erupted when the school board refused to create such a holiday just six days before Eid al-Adha, which would have required thousands to families to scramble to find accommodations for their children. It also raises the slippery slope of adopting some religious holidays and not others. For example, the Jewish community noted that their families do not have official holidays for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The confrontations raises the question of why public schools should create religious holidays as opposed to giving students excused absences for such holidays, which New Jersey does.
One Muslim mother is heard declaring that “We’re going to be the majority soon!” That comment embodies the very point cited by both supporters and critics. On one hand, the community is calling for the simple recognition of a dominant religious holiday in this community. They insist that community control over schools means that large segments of the population should be accommodated on such question. Moreover, this was not such a controversy, they suggest, when the holidays were Christian.
On the other hand, critics insist that it is not about the majority getting what it wants in terms of elevating their own religious holidays over others. Indeed, the first amendment is designed first and foremost to protect minorities from majoritarian discrimination. There are also the entanglement issues raised by certain religious holidays being favored over others. Unless one adopts the “majority is always right” to impose a favored religion, the school would have to recognize holidays for Christians, Jews, Buddhists and other faiths.
For many of us, it makes better constitutional and practical sense to allow excused absences. Of course, this leaves the issue of “Christmas” holidays. However, those holidays are increasingly disassociated with Christianity and rarely are called “Christmas” holiday. Instead, the holiday comes at the end of the year and is carried through the New Year. Easter holidays are virtually gone and even “Halloween parties” have been reconfigured as “Harvest celebrations” to avoid even attenuated reference to anything religious.
What is interesting is that various leaders including Jewish leaders expressed an interest in adding the holiday for next year. Rabbi Debra Hachen of Jersey City’s Temple Beth-El, the city’s largest Jewish congregation, said “I personally plan to offer my assistance to the Muslim community to bring this up during the school year so that it can be discussed and considered fully in time to be incorporated into next year’s school calendar. Our community is fully in support of religious freedom of expression and understands the desire of our Muslim friends and neighbors to have the schools closed for Eid El-Adha.” It is a position that raises the issue of accommodation of other faiths and whether this is simply a question of the majority religion in a given district.
The controversy in New Jersey is illustrative of a common view that religious freedom means the right to impose religious values supported by the majority. The Kim Davis controversy reflects that same claim of entitlement in an official insisting that she has a right to impose her religious litmus test in carrying out ministerial functions as a clerk. The classic civil libertarian position is that true religious freedom is protected by neutrality by the government. The fear is that this all becomes little more than a muscle play. The insular minorities of yesterday become the dominant majorities of today.
Yet, in fairness to those calling for this holiday, The city has already established this holiday and Diwali as city holidays. Dawali is the Indian festival of lights. One can argue that schools are part of communities and can accommodate and recognize the holidays that are most important to those communities. After all, if the vast majority of students are taking leave for the holidays, it is argued that it makes more sense to simply declare a holiday for everyone.
It is a fascinating line to draw, though from a constitutional standpoint there is always unease in the government enforcing a holiday tied to a particular religion. This has long been the case with Christian holidays but, as discussed above, those official holidays were long contested on separation grounds.
What do you think?