Group Protests District's Addition of Jewish Holidays

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A suburban Cincinnati district's decision to close school for two Jewish holidays this month has angered a group of parents who say the accommodation gives preference to one religion over another.

Parents for Fairness in Sycamore has gathered about 90 signatures on a petition and retained a lawyer. The group says it may file a lawsuit if the Sycamore public school system does not reconsider the policy it adopted in February to make Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, and Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, official school holidays.

"The purpose of that decision was to favor one religious denomination to the detriment of other organizations, and that violates the First Amendment of the [U.S.] Constitution," said Steven Stuhlbarg, the lawyer for the group of about 40 parents.

Mr. Stuhlbarg said that after the Jewish holidays were added to the school calendar, some Muslims in the group asked the board to close schools on Islamic holidays and were refused.

But Bruce Armstrong, the superintendent of 6,100-student district, said that adjustments to the calendar for the Jewish holidays were made on educational grounds.

Attendance is so low on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur that it is unproductive to have classes, said Mr. Armstrong, who noted that between 15 percent and 21 percent of students were absent on those days last year.

"The problem was we had so many students out that the teachers were not introducing new material, so it disrupted the flow of the educational process," he said.

Other Districts Close

"The decision was never based on religion," Mr. Armstrong said. However, he said he will survey parents to gauge public opinion on the calendar change.

Dozens of school systems across the country have for decades designated Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur as holidays. The New York City school system, for example, has not held classes on the Jewish holidays since the 1950s.

But while some school systems have been sued for closing in the spring to coincide with the Easter holiday and Good Friday, it appears that no district has been sued for suspending classes on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, which this year fall on Sept. 21 and Sept. 30, respectively.

Marc Stern, a lawyer with the American Jewish Congress, a Jewish civil rights organization based in New York City, said that any decision to close a school on a Jewish holiday should be a secular one.

"Jews are not entitled to have schools closed on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana because it's not the business of schools to mark religious holidays," he said. "On the other hand, we have never objected if it doesn't make sense practically to keep schools open."

A high absentee rate has been used in court cases to uphold school closings on Christmas.

But the courts have stopped short of specifying how many student and teacher absences would render it impractical for schools to remain open, Mr. Stern said.

Experts who track religious trends say that schools are likely to face more challenges to their calendars as an increasingly diverse student population seeks time off for religious observances.

"Besides Jews and Christians, many districts now have Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs," said Joe Conn, a spokesman for the Washington-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "Schools are going to have to address these issues in a fair way that respects religious pluralism and doesn't impose any one tradition."

While scheduling a holiday may be controversial, sometimes revoking one can cause a district headaches, too.

Mr. Stern recalls one situation in which a district dropped Good Friday as a holiday because the local Roman Catholic population had declined, and school staff balked at the change: "It [can be] a political problem for the school system," he said, "because teachers never want to give up a day off."

Vol. 18, Issue 3, Page 3

Published in Print: September 23, 1998, as Group Protests District's Addition of Jewish Holidays
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