New York City public schools have long recognized Christian and Jewish holidays. Now many Muslims want classes canceled for theirs as well. Last month the City Council agreed, passing a nonbinding resolution which urges that Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha be included. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has the final say on the matter, is not so enthusiastic. "If you close the schools for every single holiday," he argued, "there won't be any school."
Addressing the dispute begins with understanding how religious holidays end up on public school calendars. Though the First Amendment blocks government bodies from promoting religion, faith-based holidays often have secular impacts that can be taken into account. Specifically, if enough students — not to mention teachers and staff — will not show up on a given date, it is difficult to conduct business as usual. Charles C. Haynes writes:
Christian and Jewish holiday closings can probably be justified under the First Amendment because there are legitimate secular grounds for the policy. In New York City, Christians remain the majority faith and Jews make up approximately 12% of the population.
If New York schools are unable to function well due to high absenteeism among students and faculty on certain holy days, then school officials may close for educational reasons without violating the establishment clause.
So how many Muslims attend New York City public schools? Activists who support the resolution claim that 12% of students are Muslim. It must be noted, however, that U.S. Islamic groups have a history of overstating the size of the population they represent. Indeed, a 2008 Columbia University study estimates that Muslims comprise closer to 10% of city pupils, while others insist that the fraction is lower still. Clearly we require better data.
Yet if it could be demonstrated objectively that the numbers of Muslims and Jews in the school system are comparable, it is hard to see how the city would be able to justify canceling classes for Jewish holidays but not for Muslim ones. After all, the same secular arguments used to back closure on religious holidays would apply equally to each set.
Because conflicts are inevitable in a diverse school system with ever-shifting demographics, New York City would be wise to adopt a neutral formula for recognizing holidays, based solely on the number of students who celebrate them. It also would be reasonable to grant pupils an excused absence or two that could be put toward fulfilling religious requirements.
Successfully navigating the challenges of a multi-faith society starts with a simple mantra: equal rights for all and special privileges for none. To this end, if and when schools accommodate religious holidays, they must do so in a manner that is unbiased and detached from politics.