Will this be the last year that American public school children be able to take traditional religious school holidays? As members of more diverse religions demand that their own holidays be observed, some school districts have decided to eliminate them all. Will other school districts follow, and which other traditional holidays will be axed?
April 9, 2007 — - On Friday, students in Florida's Hillsborough County School District had the day off from school for Good Friday, no matter what religious faith they practiced.
It's the last time they will have Good Friday off as a districtwide day off from school.
As part of the ongoing struggle in schools across the country on how to respect holy days of all religions, the Hillsborough school district, which encompasses the city of Tampa, came up with its own solution.
It has eliminated all religious holidays starting with the 2007-2008 school year.
Like school districts in so many parts of the country, Hillsborough County has tried to accommodate its diverse student body.
"We, like many districts, have had Christian holidays for years and years," said Steve Hegarty, a communications officer for Hillsborough County. Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, was added a few years ago, he says.
Should it matter that faiths other than Christians make up a small number of the total school population? For example, Muslims make up only 2% of the enitre U.S. population.
Fair to All Faiths
"Last year, a group of Muslims asked for a day off too," Hegarty said. The school board decided: "Let's go for a calendar that's fair to all faiths."
The controversy began in 2004, when a group of Muslims made a request to the school board to coincide days off with two major Muslim holidays, like the board had done with Jewish and Christian holidays for years. The school board said it would consider the request.
Thinking it was coming up with a calendar that would work for its students, Hillsborough looked carefully at holiday schedules as it planned the 2007-2008 school calendar.
Eid al-Fitr, a Muslim holiday, and Yom Kippur both fall on Saturdays this year, so no additional days off would be needed. The board decided not to give Good Friday as a day off next year.
"We were hoping the district would accommodate us," said Ahmed Bedier of the Tampa chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "We never wanted anyone to lose their days. We were just hoping to be included."
The decision began a firestorm of letters, calls and e-mails from angry parents and community members.
"People who might not even find Tampa on a map were sending us e-mails that were hateful -- many of them anti-Muslim," Hegarty said.
The 'War on Easter'?
The "war on Christmas" seems to have included Easter this year. On Saturday, a public school in Rhode Island decided the Easter Bunny was "too Christian" to appear at a crafts fair held at Tiverton Middle School in Tiverton.
The school renamed him Peter Rabbit, which angered a Rhode Island congressman so much that he introduced an "Easter Bunny Act" to preserve the name of the traditional Easter symbol.
In an interview on "Good Morning America's Weekend Edition," Rhode Island State Rep. Richard Singleton said, "Like many Rhode Islanders, I'm quite frustrated … by people trying to change traditions that we've held in this country for 150 years."
Back in Florida, one group that is fighting to keep religious holidays on the school calendar is the Florida Family Association. The association is worried that if school is held on Good Friday, Christmas could be the next holiday to be removed.
In a statement on the Florida Family Association's Web site, executive director David Caton said, "The school district … claimed that constitutional restraints require them to eliminate religious holidays. If this excuse were true, why did the school district keep Christmas within the holiday period described as 'Winter Break?'"
What Is Appropriate?
In many parts of the country, students are off for the Jewish holidays Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. And unlike Hillsborough County, many schools still give days off for Good Friday and the day after Easter Sunday. These days occasionally fall within Spring Break as well.
It's not the first time Good Friday has been on the cutting block.
In 1999, Judith Koenick, a former public school teacher, filed a lawsuit against the Board of Education in Montgomery County, Md. She alleged that the public school holidays for Good Friday and the Monday after Easter were unconstitutional. She said that having these days as school holidays singled out a Christian holiday for special treatment.
A Maryland district court ruled against Koenick, saying that a secular reason existed in closing schools on those days, when so many students would be absent.
In February, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take on a case concerning public school displays using religious symbols.
The case of Skoros vs. City of New York looks at whether the public schools in New York City promote Judaism and Islam without offering the same promotion to Christianity.
New York City schools allow the Jewish menorah and Muslim star and crescent in holiday displays, but not Christian nativity scenes. Instead, the symbol for Christmas is an evergreen tree.
Andrea Skoros filed the suit in 2002, after seeing what she felt was a slight on the Christian faith. But with the Supreme Court refusing to take on her case, the "war on Christmas" and the struggle over what to do with holidays in public schools will undoubtedly continue each year.
For now, Hillsborough County is pleased with its calendar for the next school year.
"We still approach the school calendar as a way to get kids in class and get them out by late June. We aim to get 184 days of instruction in before we run out of time," Hegarty said.
As more religions and cultures are represented in this country each year, the education sector is a place where the struggle between respecting religion and maintaining political correctness is bound to continue.