Less School, More Education: Religious Holidays in American Public Schools

by Sophia Garbarino, August 13, 2020

America was founded by immigrants seeking religious freedom, but the majority of America’s public schools avoid religion in the classroom. With America continuing to become more religiously diverse, religiously-motivated attacks are an unfortunate but frequent topic in the media. Common stories include mass shootings at schools and religious establishments, such as the Tree of Life Congregation shooting in Pittsburgh, PA in 2018, where a man killed 11 people while “shouting anti-Semitic slurs” (Robertson). But while the media is covering religion on a daily basis, American schools aren’t necessarily opening the discussion to promote an informed and understanding attitude towards religious diversity. It’s impossible to avoid religion altogether with its current representation in the media, making it even more critical for schools to demonstrate tolerance, defined as the “willingness to accept behavior and beliefs that are different from your own, even if you disagree with or disapprove of them,” for all religions (“Tolerance”). Therefore, all American public schools should promote religious diversity and tolerance by having no school on all major religious holidays.

A major component of supporting religious diversity is treating people equally regardless of their religious beliefs or lack of them. With the majority of current education administrations this is not the case. Most, if not all, American public schools have Easter and Christmas off because they’re both considered major Chirstian holidays (“School Holiday Law and Legal Definition”). However, other religions also have very important holidays, and these religions are not currently being represented in the academic calendar. For example, Eid-al-Fitr and Eid-al-Adha are the most celebrated Muslim holidays, and celebrations often last the entire day (Hill). Very few districts in the United States recognize these holidays despite the growing Muslim population in America (Hill). As Debbie Truong of The Washington Post reported in her 2017 article “In schools, a growing push to recognize Muslim and Jewish holidays,” deciding between school and celebrating holidays is “a struggle diverse communities throughout the country have encountered as they seek to accommodate students from different religious backgrounds” (Truong). As Muslim mother Khadija Athman from Virginia describes, “Eid is like our Christmas… You should be able to practice your religion without having to compete with school” (Truong). In Athman’s district, only Christian and Jewish holidays are recognized (Truong). While it may seem irregular and even inappropriate to have no school on these holidays, it is essentially the same as having no school on Christmas and Easter. Therefore, having days like the Eid holidays off would be progressing towards equality.

Currently, some districts are starting to give more holidays off, and it’s these districts that the rest of American educators need to follow. Due to a local increase in religious diversity, students attending Howard County Public Schools in Maryland have no school on “Eid al-Adha, the eve of Lunar New Year, and the Hindu holiday of Diwali” (Truong). In highly diverse areas, such as New York City, where Nora Rivera-Larkin, a Stony Brook University creative writing major, attended school, public schools have several major non-Christian holidays off, including Eid, Lunar New Year, Yom Kippur, and Rosh Hashanah (Rivera-Larkin). In fact, New York City students “have been given Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah off since the 1960s” (Truong). According to Ms. Rivera-Larkin, “students need these days off for religious and cultural reasons. There’s so much diversity that it would be impossible not to include these holidays without a lot of students missing school on these days” (Rivera-Larkin). Not only does having no school on these days recognize the religious diversity in the student population, but it also reduces absences for both students and teachers.

As many of these major holidays involve elaborate and long celebrations, it’s impossible for students to go to school and observe the holiday at the same time. Ms. Athman’s daughters have to miss school every year to celebrate the Eid holidays, which often means missing a test or other important assignments (Truong). Many students face this same situation every year, such as Hanan Seid of Arlignton, VA, who “would be seized by a familiar anxiety as she approached teachers each year for permission to make up assignments or tests that fell on Eid” (Truong). Students of various religions also face these same issues during their respective holidays, including Yom Kippur and Diwali. Schools often don’t have these days off, either, meaning absences are typically unavoidable. Having these days off would reduce absences for non-Christian students, who would also no longer have to miss tests to observe their holidays.

While more holidays also means extending the school year, adding one holiday for each major religion wouldn’t actually extend the year significantly. For instance, a calendar could realistically have only 8 holidays off in total (Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, Christmas, Easter, the two Eid holidays, the Eve of Lunar New Year, and Diwali) and still recognize the major religions in the American community. While there are certainly more major holidays (Diwali and Lunar New Year celebrations last up to two weeks), school districts would have to decide individually what holidays to have off.

Making these calendar changes can be expensive, but it’s not as expensive as paying substitutes to cover teachers who have to take a personal day to observe a holiday. According to the “Closing school for the holidays – whose holidays?” article from the 2011 edition of the Phi Delta Kappan education policy journal, “closing schools and adding to the end of the school calendar doesn’t necessarily cost extra money” (Gunther and Purinton). In comparison to paying for substitutes, who cover for teachers who may take personal days to celebrate a holiday, “keeping schools open during a religious holiday can cost significantly, depending on the number of substitutes needed” (Gunther and Purinton). Also, districts may not even have enough substitutes to cover all of the absent teachers, causing loss in learning time for students (Gunther and Purinton). For many schools, it would actually be more financially beneficial to have more holidays off. Furthermore, adding days to the calendar isn’t the only possible solution. In his 2011 Scholastic article “Extending the School Day,” Ron Schachter reports that several American schools are already adding an extra 30-60 minutes to each school day to increase learning time or to make up for snow days (Schachter). In fact, “districts largely prefer the extended day rather than the more expensive extended-year approach” (Schachter). Schools could also take days off from Spring break or reduce the number of early dismissal days. These are just a few possible solutions to the budget increase. 

In addition to the possible financial benefits, promoting religious diversity in schools also helps progress towards a more tolerant community. In Herricks, NY, where Vineeta Abraham, a Stony Brook psychology major, went to high school, the community was very diverse. In her final years there, “students began advocating for more recognition, and [they] ended up having days off for less common holidays such as Diwali and Lunar New Year” (Abraham). While this can be seen as a victory, it also means that the students who celebrate these holidays were not being recognized before and had to fight for equal treatment. In many other districts, according to the director of the Religious Freedom Education project, Charles Haynes, “many minority families and community groups won’t speak up about districts that do not acknowledge their religious holidays. They often assume that they have no right to complain” (Haynes). The lack of equality in both of these situations contradicts major American laws, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX, which illegalize education and job discrimination based on race, religion, and sex (“Types of Educational Opportunities Discrimination”). American public schools are certainly not exceptions to this rule.

On the opposite side of the equality spectrum, we have the “naked public school,” where all religious references are eliminated in schools entirely. Montgomery County, MD, decided to “strip all religious references from the school calendar” in 2014 after their Muslim community asked for no school on the Eid holidays (“Maryland School District Erases Religious Holidays from Calendar”). This is a possible solution, but it’s not the best one because it ignores the issue of student absences on these two major Muslim holidays. Montgomery still has major Jewish and Christian holidays off; the only difference is now, there’s no mention of these holidays by name in the calendar (“Maryland School District Erases Religious Holidays from Calendar”). According to Zainab Chaudry, co-chair of the Coalition for Eid in Montgomery, by asking for the Eid holidays off, Muslim students were “not seeking special rights,” but “seeking equal rights” (“Maryland School District Erases Religious Holidays from Calendar”). The district’s education administration made no progress towards equal treatment by becoming a “naked public school.” A truly equal “naked public school” would have no religious holidays off, including Christmas and Easter.

Ignoring religion completely is not the best solution. However, districts like Montgomery are still transitioning into naked public schools, which have gained popularity in the last half century due to Engel v. Vitale, a landmark Supreme Court case in 1962 where the Supreme Court ruled that religion cannot be promoted by public schools (Darko). This may be the preferred solution for atheists and agnostics, who do not practice religion at all and may even criticize it. However, the ultimate goal is tolerance of religion, especially to the point where a calm, open discussion doesn’t evolve into a heated argument. This cannot be achieved in a naked public school if there’s no discussion at all. According to education experts Steven Brookfield and Steven Preskill, authors of Discussion as a Way of Teaching, conversation stimulates education, especially when it comes to controversial topics like religion (Brookfield and Preskill 21-22). Many American educators agreed, releasing a set of guidelines titled, “Religious Holidays in the Public Schools: Questions and Answers” in the 1990 edition of the Journal of Law and Religion, stating that “recognition of and information about holidays may focus on how and when they are celebrated, their origins, histories and generally agreed-upon meanings… this study can foster understanding and mutual respect for differences in belief” (“Religious Holidays in the Public Schools: Questions and Answers”). If these guidelines are followed, education can promote religious tolerance without offending someone or promoting worship.

Currently, American public schools don’t educate their students about religion enough. The American high school curriculum includes global studies classes where students are taught the foundations of different religions, and these foundations are certainly part of a well-rounded education. The most recent AP World History: Modern curriculum includes a unit that focuses on how “the development of ideas, beliefs, and religions illustrates how groups in society view themselves,” but the “religion” part only extends to the foundations and does not discuss modern religious practices (“AP World History: Modern Course Exam and Description”). Yet while it’s important to understand the foundational concepts of religions, it’s equally as important to know how those foundations influence modern-day practices.

While American educators have agreed that “schools may neither promote nor denigrate any religion, they also agreed that religion is “an important part of a complete education ” (“Religious Holidays in the Public Schools: Questions and Answers”; Haynes). To achieve this complete education, schools must also include modern religious practices, not just outdated ones. Modern religion is not currently taught in American public schools because doing so would likely pose several challenges, including how to deal with atheists, agnostics, students’ criticism, and those offended by certain aspects of different religions; how to avoid sugar-coating the heavily-criticized practices; and how teachers can maintain their own personal beliefs while abstaining from projecting those beliefs onto their students. These challenges are significant reasons why modern religion is not currently taught in schools, and there may be no singular solution for all of them. However, having more religious holidays off would, at minimum, contribute to resolving these issues because all students would be treated equally regardless of their religion.

Like any other sizable achievement, turning America into a country whose tolerance level reflects its large diversity will take time, and the first step must come from the education system. Nearly two decades after the September 11th attacks, America still suffers from religiously-motivated attacks such as the Tree of Life Congregation shooting in 2018. More and more religious disputes are happening every day, and they will not go away until students are taught to view religious diversity not as something negative and scary, but as something welcomed and accepted. This can only happen if American school districts start promoting religious tolerance instead of treating it as a social barrier. More religious holidays on the academic calendar are critical to this transformation. When America achieves this, perhaps the younger generations of Americans can then start repairing the gaping wound that religious intolerance has created.

Works Cited

Abraham, Vineeta. Personal Interview. 16 October 2019.

“AP World History: Modern Course Exam and Description.” College Board, 2019. https://apstudents.collegeboard.org/sites/default/files/2019-05/ap-world-history-modern-course-and-exam-description_0.pdf. Accessed 30 October 2019.

Brookfield, Steven, and Steven Preskill. Discussion as a Way of Teaching. 2nd ed., John Wiley and Sons, 2005. Accessed 30 October 2019.

Darko, Jeffrey. “Engel v. Vitale.” American Experience, PBS, 22 June 2017, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/engel-v-vitale/. Accessed 9 October 2019.

Gunther, Vicki, and Ted Purinton. “Closing School for the Holidays — Whose Holidays?” The Phi Delta Kappan, vol. 93, no. 4, 2011, pp. 33–37. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23056881. Accessed 7 October 2019.

Haynes, Charles C. “Religious Liberty in Public Schools.” Freedom Forum Institute, First Amendment Center, 8 Nov. 2002, http://www.freedomforuminstitute.org/first-amendment-center/topics/freedom-of-religion/religious-liberty-in-public-schools/. Accessed 9 October 2019.

Hill, Margaret. “Holidays in the Public Schools: Ramadan.” The California Three R’s Project, 2016, http://ca3rsproject.org/pdfs/RamadanResources.pdf. Accessed 12 November 2019.

“Maryland School District Erases Religious Holidays from Calendar.” The Takeaway from PRI and WNYC, 14 Nov. 2014, https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/takeaway/segments/when-religious-observances-become-school-holidays. Accessed 9 October 2019.

“Religious Holidays in the Public Schools: Questions and Answers.” Journal of Law and Religion, vol. 8, no. 1/2, 1990, pp. 313–317. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1051288. Accessed 7 October 2019.

Rivera-Larkin, Nora. Personal Interview. 16 October 2019.

Roberston, Campbell. “11 Killed in Synagogue Massacre; Suspect Charged with 29 Counts.” The New York Times, 27 Oct. 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/27/us/active-shooter-pittsburgh-synagogue-shooting.html. Accessed 9 November 2019.

Schachter, Ron. “Extending the School Day.” Scholastic Administrator, 2011, http://www.scholastic.com/browse/article.jsp?id=3755837. Accessed 20 November 2019.

“School Holiday Law and Legal Definition.” US Legal, https://definitions.uslegal.com/s/school-holiday/. Accessed 30 October 2019.

“Tolerance.” Cambridge Dictionary, 2019, https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/tolerance. Accessed 20 November 2019.

Truong, Debbie. “In Schools, a Growing Push to Recognize Muslim and Jewish Holidays.” The Washington Post, 4 Dec. 2017, http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/in-schools-a-growing-push-to-recognize-muslim-and-jewish-holidays/2017/12/04/0674f9fe-d393-11e7-95bf-df7c19270879_story.html. Accessed 9 October 2019.

“Types of Educational Opportunities Discrimination.” Justice.gov, The United States Department of Justice, 15 Oct. 2019, https://www.justice.gov/crt/types-educational-opportunities-discrimination. Accessed 30 October 2019.

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