This article originally appeared in the Daily Trojan on Jan. 22, 2014.
Among other universities across the nation, USC halted its semester Monday to observe the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday that, after decades of lobbying, was finally approved as a federal holiday in 1986. Fittingly, a few days before the King holiday, and after seven years of discussion the University of California system announced a policy that will delay classes, pushing the start of the school year back one week to avoid the Jewish High Holidays, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Christina Ellis | Daily Trojan
The UC’s recognition of religious holidays is a positive step in creating more inclusion in learning environments that are legally obligated to avoid taboo discussions of religion in school.
Of the 10 UC campuses, seven of them are on the quarter system and generally start classes on the last week of September — the same time during which the Jewish High Holidays are observed. During the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, observant Jews mark the holiday by spending time with family and limiting work.
Yet, despite the recent recognition given to Jewish students in an academic calendar that is historically structured around Christian holidays, students of other religions are not afforded the same privilege — even though they should be.
Last October, Muslim families in Maryland lobbied to make the Islamic holy day of Eid al-Adha a school holiday, according to the Washington Post. Advocates for the policy change reasoned that it put an unnecessary burden on observant students to miss school the day before the PSAT, a required standardized test given at school. In counties within the state, schools are closed for Christian holidays such as Christmas and Good Friday as well as the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
According to a report by the Freedom Forum, lower federal court decisions have determined that recognition of holidays might be constitutional if the purpose is to provide secular instruction about religious traditions. The recognition cannot promote the particular religion involved.
Because the Supreme Court has not ruled on this issue, there is no definitive answer to the question of which religious holidays should be accommodated in the school calendar. In the 1993 ruling of Bridenbaugh v. O’Bannon, however, the Court stated that government institutions or public school systems could grant the day off on religious holidays if a secular reason is also provided. In the Maryland case, those supporting the accommodation argued that classes should be canceled because the school district has determined a high rate of absenteeism would occur regardless.
The UC system also factored the percentage of students possibly missing school into its decision to delay the semester because of Jewish High Holidays. In a 2010 University of California Undergraduate Experience Survey, the results showed that approximately 3 percent of UC students identified as Jewish. There are not exact numbers on how many students identify as Muslim in Maryland, but trends show that the Muslim community is growing, according to the Washington Post.
Federal and state laws prohibit schools from penalizing students for missing school on religious holidays. But in this ever-evolving inclusive U.S. culture, the status quo can go a step further.
Canceling classes for certain religions and not others implies that some religions have more impact than other ones. For these reasons, numbers should not be solely relied upon when discussing the sensitive topic of religion.
Tradition is not always telling either. Despite the fact that spring break often coincides with the Christian Easter holiday, not every student with a Christian background is going to spend those days off from school observing that holy day. Therefore, if there are groups of students and parents reaching out to school districts and showing them how their religious practices would be compromised by the stagnant academic calendar, it’s about time we start listening.
When school policymakers are cognizant of religious holidays that would lead students to be absent from school, the learning environment becomes more reflective of the world around us. Everyone loves to be recognized and respected, especially when it comes to religious expression. Though school systems have made steps to improve recognition of religion in some areas, their definition of religious impact should now begin to expand as well.
Jordyn Holman is a sophomore majoring in print and digital journalism. Her column “Making the Grade” runs Wednesdays.