The end of religious school holidays?

April 9, 2007 — — Students in the Hillsborough County School District, Florida, had a Good Friday holiday from school on Friday, regardless of what religion they practice.

This is the last time they will have Good Friday as a district-wide school day off.

As part of the ongoing struggle in schools across the country over how to observe the holy days of all religions, the Hillsborough School District, which encompasses the city of Tampa, has come up with its own solution.

It abolished all religious holidays from 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.

“Like many districts, we’ve had Christian holidays for years and years,” said Steve Hegarty, communications manager for Hillsborough County. Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, was added a few years ago, he said.

Just for all faiths

“Last year a group of Muslims also asked for a day off,” Hegarty said. The school board decided, “Let’s go for a fair calendar for all denominations.”

The controversy began in 2004, when a group of Muslims asked the school board to make the holidays coincide with two major Muslim holidays, as the board had done with Jewish and Christian holidays for years. The school board said it would consider the request.

Thinking he was offering a schedule that would work for his students, Hillsborough carefully considered vacation schedules when planning the 2007-2008 school calendar.

Eid al-Fitr, a Muslim holiday, and Yom Kippur both fall on Saturdays this year, so no extra days off would be needed. The board has decided not to give Good Friday as a day off next year.

“We were hoping the district would welcome us,” said Ahmed Bedier of the Tampa chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “We never wanted anyone to die. We just hoped to be included.”

The decision sparked a storm of letters, calls and emails from angry parents and community members.

“People who might not even find Tampa on a map were sending us hateful emails — many of them anti-Muslim,” Hegarty said.

The “War Against 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 craft 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 Representative Richard Singleton said, “Like many people in Rhode Island, I’m quite frustrated…with people who try to change the traditions that we have had in this country for 150 years.”

Back in Florida, one group fighting to keep religious holidays on the school calendar is the Florida Family Association. The association fears that if school takes place on Good Friday, Christmas could be the next holiday to be scrapped.

In a statement on the Florida Family Association’s website, Executive Director David Caton said, “The school district…has asserted that constitutional restrictions require them to eliminate religious holidays. If this excuse was true, why did the school district keep Christmas over the holiday period? described as ‘Winter Break?'”

What is appropriate?

In many parts of the country, students leave 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 sometimes also fall during spring break.

This isn’t 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 Montgomery County School Board in Maryland. She alleged that the public school holidays of Good Friday and the Monday after Easter were unconstitutional. She said having these days as school holidays chose a Christian holiday for special treatment.

A Maryland district court ruled against Koenick, saying a secular reason existed for schools closing on those days when so many students would be absent.

In February, the United States Supreme Court declined to hear a case involving posters in public schools using religious symbols.

The Skoros v. New York City case examines whether New York City public schools promote Judaism and Islam without offering the same promotion to Christianity.

New York schools allow the Jewish menorah and the Muslim star and crescent in holiday displays, but not Christian nativity scenes. Instead, the symbol of Christmas is an evergreen tree.

Andrea Skoros filed a complaint in 2002, after seeing what she felt was an attack on the Christian faith. But with the Supreme Court’s refusal to take up his case, the “Christmas war” and the fight over what to do with the holidays in public schools will no doubt continue every year.

For now, Hillsborough County is happy with its schedule for the upcoming school year.

“We’re still approaching the school calendar as a way to get kids in and out of class by the end of June. We’re aiming to get 184 days of instruction before we run out of time,” Hegarty said.

As more religions and cultures are represented in this country every year, the education sector is a place where the struggle between respecting religion and maintaining political correctness is bound to continue.

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