On the eve of Ramadan, the holiest month for Muslims, two major debates around Muslims rights are taking place in New York City. One about the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque", the other over whether to include Muslim holidays, including the post-Ramadan celebration, Eid-ul-Fitr, in the public school calendar.
Last September, a broad coalition of religious, labor and immigrant groups began pressing New York City officials to close all public schools during two important Muslim holy days. The advocates have asked that Eid Ul-Adha, which marks the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, and Eid Ul-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan, be recognized on the academic calendar of the school district as official holidays for all students.
Muslim students in New York City are already permitted, and have the constitutional right, to stay home on their religious holidays without incurring a penalty. There is no harm in the government recognizing the religious diversity among public school students and accommodating the observance of those beliefs. The current campaign, however, is to give all students--regardless of religious affiliation--a day off for Muslim religious holidays.
The push for school closings on the two holy days is a result of the growing Muslim population, roughly 600,000 in New York City, resulting in over 100,000 Muslims students in the city's school district, or 10-12% of its student body. On June 29th, the New York City Council passed a nonbinding resolution that calls for the addition of the two holidays into the school calendar.
Mayor Bloomberg, who has the final say to designate the days off, has opposed the measure, insisting that the city's children need to be in school more, not less. He has also argued that the recognition of two Muslim holidays would open the door for other religious groups to demand their religious holidays be recognized as well. Such a case would, as Bloomberg states, eventually lead to an inadequate number of school days. Currently, 4 in 10 New York City students graduate on time and 1 in 10 drop out. Bloomberg is hesitant to give more days off unless there exist "a very large number of kids who practice," which would result in administrative difficulties on such days.
Advocates for school closings on Muslim holidays argue that because Jews and Christians have their holidays recognized, so should Muslims. In other words, recognizing other religious holidays celebrated by a substantial number of students without also recognizing Muslim holidays despite Muslims composing 10-12% of New York City students constitutes government "endorsement" of Christianity and Judaism.
This argument is reminiscent of those often made under the Establishment Clause--and is equally dangerous for religious freedom. The reason it is dangerous is that it creates an all or nothing conflict -- either recognize all holidays or none -- that is most likely to result in the recognition of none. Arguing for recognition under the endorsement principle would most likely result in a secularized calendar instead of a calendar with additional religious accommodations. In other words, the endorsement argument ultimately hurts the cause of protecting a space for vibrant religious expression in the public sphere.
Consider, for example, a school in Hillsborough County, Florida where Muslims requested the school close for Muslim holiday, arguing that closing for Christian and Jewish holidays and not for Muslims ones constituted government favoritism of some religions over others. The result of the request was a secularized calendar that kept schools open on holidays like Good Friday and Christmas.
The push for school closings on Muslim holidays should occur under some other rubric. For example, some schools in Dearborn, Michigan have closed schools for Muslim holidays because the student body is nearly half Muslim. The premise is not government endorsement of Christianity and Judaism but the practical impossibilities of a functioning school day with half of the student body missing.
The school calendar in U.S. public schools is typically tied to traditional Protestant holidays, largely as a result of schools accommodating a religious practice in order to avoid administrative difficulties during such holidays. New York City has adjusted its school calendar with the transforming milieu of its city. For instance, Jewish holidays were enacted during the 1960s because Jews represented 33% of the New York City student body as well as 45% of the faculty. The number of absentees was substantial enough to justify closing schools for the sake of efficiency.
The question, then, is whether Muslims present a substantial enough portion of the student body to merit a change to the academic calendar for reasons of administrability. After all, what would stop members of other religions from claiming "endorsement" of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam if the two Eid holidays result in school closings? There is no logical stopping point between the two arguments if one pays no attention to the issue of administrability. This factual question should remain central to the debate, as opposed to constitutional claims about the establishment of religion.
Asma T. Uddin is a legal fellow at ISPU and the founder and editor-in-chief of altmuslimah.com. She is also an international law attorney with The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a non-profit, non-partisan, public interest law firm based in Washington, D.C.
This article was published by the Washington Post on August 10, 2010: