Should religious holidays be observed in schools?
- Under Mayor De Blasio, NY public schools--which make up the largest public school system in the US--added the Muslim holidays of Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr to their school calendar as official days off starting in 2016.
- According to data compiled by a recent Graduate Center of The City University of New York survey, there are approximately 313 “religions and denominations” in the US.
- A 2018 Rasmussen Report revealed that 74% of Americans think that Christmas should be celebrated in public schools.
- Public school students in southern US states report the highest incidence of experiencing religion in school, ranging from praying before eating lunch to wearing religious symbols.
Multiple court cases have essentially come to the conclusion that, under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution, schools may teach about religions but 'may not observe holidays as religious events or promote such observance among their students.' While this may seem insensitive, it actually isn't, as implementable approaches exist that are inclusive of students' cultures without going so far as to observe religious holidays.
It should also be noted that one violation of the Establishment Clause doesn't excuse another. For instance, an article from the Freedom Forum Institute gives the example of justifying Christian Christmas celebrations by attempting to 'balance' them out with a Hanukkah celebration. As stated in the article, 'all holiday activities [should] focus on objective study about religion, not indoctrination.'
Another consideration that should be taken into account is that some religions, Jehovah's Witnesses being one example, may prohibit the celebration of certain holidays. In such cases, the observance of religious holidays could prove even more exclusionary than the alternative.
As Stephen Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University wrote in the Wall Street Journal, hyper inclusivity is not possible in a society as 'religiously diverse' as ours. For several reasons, it just isn't feasible to observe every religious holiday. And to avoid the appearance of promoting one religion over another, which is prohibited, the only real solution is not to promote or observe any of them. In this way, we can best enable a neutral environment in which students of any faith, or none, may feel welcome and able to be proud of their beliefs.
Observing religious holidays in schools allows students to learn about the true meaning of notable holidays: those that one practices and others. This is important in learning about culture and may facilitate increased tolerance for people of different faiths than one’s own. Observing these holidays in school is also vital to a comprehensive education. A wide range of religions are practiced worldwide, with nearly 6 billion people practicing Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism alone. In learning to respect these and other holidays, students may become more open-minded and well-rounded individuals.
Of course, it is not possible to close schools for every single religious holiday. For example, Christianity is the most common religion in the United States, so one can expect that more Christian holidays will be observed than those of other religions. Still, parents of children from non-Christian faiths may opt to keep their children home from school on days that conflict with a religious holiday, which is common for those such as Jewish High Holidays. It is also possible to still include curriculum about a particular religious holiday, even if students are still required to attend school on the day that it is observed.
There is value in nearly every holiday that warrants a day off from work and school, either secular or religious in nature. Observing holidays in this way reinforces the benefits of holidays: family time, relaxation, and celebration of the day itself, which may be relevant in practicing one’s faith and developing values. Observing these holidays from a young age fosters a more complete understanding of the importance of these days throughout life.