One of the reasons I moved to Israel was my belief that America is an overwhelmingly Christian country. While freedom of religion is a constitutional right, this is solely related to governmental influence on the population. And it is true that America does not have an official religion, England, Iceland, or unsurprisingly, Vatican City. However, this does not mean that the consensus of personal religious preference does not have an impact on American culture.
Over 75% of Americans belong to same variant of the Christian faith, per the 2010 Census. While levels of observance vary, this has obvious implications for operational efficiency, especially for major holidays such as Christmas and Easter, which are celebrated as religious holidays by 47% and 41% of the country, respectively. Many businesses, aware of the high levels of absenteeism generated by these days, close down and create a de facto break period, whether the company self-describes as religious or secular.
As private entities, companies have leeway to establish religious holidays as enforced vacation time, as long as accommodations are made for those of other faiths to observe their holidays as well. But what about public schools? Does the separation of church and state demand that religious holidays be ignored? Or perhaps, every religion should receive equal treatment, leading to school systems closing upon the request of parents, based on strongly held religious beliefs.
This was the crisis facing the Montgomery County school system, which represents a group of communities located about 90 minutes from Baltimore. A recent influx of immigrants from the Middle East has led to the school having an estimated population that may be as high as 10% Muslim. The Muslim parents requested that the school system be closed for two Islamic holidays, Eid al-Fitr, Eid al-Adha, so that students would not have to choose between schoolwork and religious observance. The school board denied this request, stating that the absentee rate of 5.6% on those days did not affect operations. The board then escalated the encounter by removing all references to any religious holidays from the school calendar, and referencing the periods encompassing Christmas and Easter as Winter and Spring breaks.
As a “double minority” who grew up with a father who was a practicing Jehovah’s Witness, I empathize with the plight of the Muslim students. Taking time off to celebrate a holiday marks you out as different. This is a direct contrast with the American teenage dream of fitting in. But does refusing to close down a school system for the benefit of 6% of the students rise to the level of racism? Should minority groups spend energy fighting for identical treatment, without respect for context, or should we be focusing on education, so that other students are aware of why their classmates are absent, and can appreciate and respect that choice?
Most school systems operate on a razor thin margin of error for scheduling, hemmed in on one side by state requirements for minimum hours of class time, and restricted on the other side by labor union demands setting a limit on how many days teachers can be requested to work. Those of us from areas with unpredictable weather can attest to the chaos that can result from a long storm, leading to hotly contested “makeup” days at the end of the school year. Can a school system afford to squander its cushion when it is not a necessity? I think not.
The plus side of a standard such as “operational efficiency” is that it affords the possibility of complete transparency. It is well within the rights of the Muslim parents to request the percentage of absenteeism which would trigger a school holiday. However, keep in mind that when Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur were added to the Montgomery County calendar in the 1970s, the de facto absentee rate for those days was 15%. Additionally, Sukkot and Shavuot are not included within the current list of vacation days, despite having equivalent status in terms of school attendance for those Jews who have the strictest levels of observance, pointing towards days off being granted explicitly due to the numbers of students and teachers who actually take time off, versus a religious definition.
In cases such as this, it is important when championing equality to keep the focus on equivalent solutions for equivalent situations, and not to make demands outside the scope which is being expected by others. It is also wise to refrain from paranoia, looking for discrimination where there is none intended. Otherwise, like the boy who cried wolf, we may find that our allies have been alienated when we really need them.
Malynnda Littky moved to Israel from the Detroit area in 2007, and lives with her family in Hadera, halfway between Tel Aviv and Haifa. She currently works as a Content Manager for a software company.
Header image courtesy of Pixabay.