Holy Days and Holidays in a Diverse Society

Balancing practical considerations and religious observances.

My local school district has been under pressure to recognize non-Christian holidays. They’ve done so in a way that will likely satisfy no one.

WTOP (“Fairfax Co. school calendar recognizes religious holidays but kids won’t have off“):

Despite pressure from faith communities in Virginia to have schools closed on certain religious holidays, the Fairfax County School Board voted Thursday to adopt a calendar for the next school year that does not include the proposed closures and instead is intended “to recognize, respect, and honor the plurality of religious and cultural observances” in the county.

The board in the diverse Virginia school district that has more than 188,000 students voted for a “middle ground” school calendar option, deciding to not to give students off on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Eid and Diwali, but to formally recognize the four holidays along with a range of other religious and cultural observances.

The calendar for the 2021-2022 academic year in Fairfax County will recognize 15 such observances. It sets the first day of school as Monday, Aug. 23, 2021, and the last day as Friday, June 10, 2022.

On the recognized days, Fairfax County Public Schools will prohibit tests, quizzes, field trips and other major school events from being scheduled.

Students will not be expected to study on those days, and tests and quizzes would be give prior to those days.

Employees in Virginia’s largest school system will be permitted to make up 16 hours of any time they miss for religious or cultural observances. The school system will update its regulations for the start of the new school year that begins July 1.

“The approach taken in the development of this calendar is one of equity and inclusivity,” said Ricardy Anderson, chairman of the school board. “It aims to center equity by elevating our systems’ respect for religious and cultural observances.

“While this final calendar may not align with the goals of everyone in Fairfax County, it recognizes all religious and cultural observances where Fairfax County Public Schools has seen above-average absences over the last five years.”

Fairfax County is quite large, both geographically (406 square miles) and in terms of population (over 1.1 million); it’s far and away the biggest county in Virginia. And it’s incredibly diverse.

It would be impractical to add 15 more holidays to the calendar and, some argue, a violation of the Establishment Clause. While we have traditionally acknowledged Christian holidays, notably Easter and Christmas, was have long since shifted to doing so on an ostensibly secular basis (Easter is a Sunday but many school districts schedule their spring break around it; Christmas always falls within the winter break).

Still, what was being asked was actually quite reasonable: days off for the two highest of the Jewish holy days (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) and the most important Muslim (Eid) and Hindu-Sikh (Diwali) observances. That’s certainly doable and, indeed, some neighboring districts already do. Where one draws the line is, of course, challenging but it doesn’t seem unreasonable to make a relatively minor accommodation for a district with so many members of these faiths.

FILED UNDER: Education, Religion
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. CSK says:

    Are students who observe Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Eid, and Diwali permitted to be absent on those occasions without penalty?

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  2. gVOR08 says:

    There is no way to slice a pie so that someone won’t bitch about it.

    I intended to make a comment on the recent redistricting post about procedural fairness and didn’t get to it. I’ve sometimes observed that maybe God can do justice, the best I can do is to be fair. If you slice the pie into precisely equal pieces you’ll still get “Timmy’s little, he doesn’t need a full slice” or “I’m the daddy, I should get a bigger slice” and on and on. But equal is the best you can do.

    Being inclusive by taking time off for Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu holidays further excludes any Buddhist, Confucianist, Spiritist, Jain, Baha’i, etc. in the district. And Orthodox celebrate Easter, but on a different date. And what about Chinese New Year? We atheists and agnostics will cheerfully take off any day that’s offered, whatever you call it.

    No matter what your district does, it’ll be wrong. Seems to me they’re doing about the best they can by noting any date they’re asked to but taking off only the traditional dates, with, as you say, a good deal of fudging about spring break and winter break.

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  3. Kingdaddy says:

    Easter should not be a holiday. We already have a Christian holiday that sprawls across weeks, beyond just the scope of the official day off. It’s tolerable because the secular elements of Christmas promote generosity, charity, good fellowship. The secular elements of Easter promote…What, exactly, beyond colored eggs? Some vague notion of renewal? Do families gather from across the country to share a common sense of renewal? Do we volunteer our time to help renew homeless people? Do Christians need an official holiday on the calendar to remind themselves that they should be going to church for that particularly important service?

    Christians should get no more than one official holiday. One.

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  4. Mikey says:

    @CSK:

    Are students who observe Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Eid, and Diwali permitted to be absent on those occasions without penalty?

    Staff will get two “floating” holidays that they can use when they wish, but I’m not sure about students. In any case a parent can excuse a student’s absence.

  5. Mikey says:

    The proposed addition of the four holidays plus three new teacher workdays that would also have been added would have meant hourly employees–pretty much all the non-teachers–losing a total of a week’s pay, since they are not paid for those days.

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  6. Argon says:

    Festivus needs to be recognized for the rest of us.

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  7. Michael Cain says:

    Off topic, but as a long-time westerner, I always find statements like

    Fairfax County is quite large, both geographically (406 square miles)…

    entertaining. In Colorado, where I live, 406 sq mi would make it the seventh smallest county. In Arizona, that size would be by far the smallest county. The settlement pattern used in the eastern half of the contiguous 48 (half by area, not number of states) broke down completely when it hit the Great Plains and western mountains.

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  8. EddieInCA says:

    When I started my career at ABC television, I often joked that the Jewish folks in my department had it made. Because they not only got off the Christian holidays, but they were also given Jewish holidays off, with pay. It was a lot of extra days off. I never understood, as an atheist, why any religious holidays were given off in a secular country.

    My position, even back then, was that you’re invariably choosing one religion (or two in ABC’s case), over all others.

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  9. KM says:

    I am of the opinion that every holiday should be a day off since we all need more days off – Americans have a real problem with getting enough vacation and relaxation time as it is. Since we’re training kids to accept this kind of logic later in their work lives, why don’t we do a PTO system for kids?

    So a reasonable proposal should be we recognize X amounts of holy / holidays (to be increased as needed) but you are only eligible to take off Y. That way a child can get Easter, Xmas and Ramadan if they live in a blended family and still have a school district that respects Diwali and Samhain. Just because the school *can* let you off on that day doesn’t mean everyone gets that day off. The family must state at the start of the school year what holidays are going to be requested off so appropriate planning and staffing can happen. A minimum number of days must be granted but if the child is truant or has attendance issues, days can be reclaimed from the overall total.

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  10. Gustopher says:

    @gVOR08: Agreed. I will add that once people are getting snippy about which holidays everyone gets off rather than people are allowed to take off…. they’re doing pretty ok in the world of tolerance.

    Not sure why the district schedules spring break around Easter though. If anything, that would seem to make it harder to celebrate the holiday and go somewhere on vacation.

  11. DrDaveT says:

    The rational part of my brain says there’s no defensible number of religious holidays for the government to recognize. The only level at which you are not necessarily promoting one religion over another is zero. The only level consistent with an officially secular government is zero.

    Of course, many (most?) Christian Americans don’t accept that ours is supposed to be a secular government. Recent SCOTUS decisions have backed them up on this.

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  12. CSK says:

    @DrDaveT:
    Well prior to Trump, Protestant fundamentalists were desperately trying to retrofit the Founders into zealots like themselves.

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  13. James Joyner says:

    @Kingdaddy: Easter always falls on a Sunday, so it’s a day off anyway. But it used to be more common for spring bring to coincide with the holiday. Indeed, when I was a kid in Houston, it was “Easter Vacation.”

    @EddieInCA: ABC isn’t a government institution so they’re certainly free to give PTO for Jewish holidays.

    @Michael Cain: Yes, that’s true.Virginia has 95 counties and 38 independent cities.

    @DrDaveT: Even as an atheist, I don’t find it problematic to recognize that America was founded mostly by Christians and that certain Christian holidays are part of our secular tradition. Hell, we celebrate Christmas and Easter (indeed, I decorated for Easter this morning) even though we do so in an entirely secular fashion. It’s just built into American culture and it’s not unreasonable to recognize that fact. States with large Catholic populations, like neighboring Maryland, tend to get Good Friday off, whereas Protestant-dominant states usually don’t.

  14. SKI says:

    Eh. I’m ok with Fairfax’s approach in general presuming that there aren’t any penalties for students or staff observing their holidays. This is despite the reality that it really sucks for observant non-Christians. There really isn’t a good answer.

    That said, this is bullshit:

    While we have traditionally acknowledged Christian holidays, notably Easter and Christmas, was have long since shifted to doing so on an ostensibly secular basis (Easter is a Sunday but many school districts schedule their spring break around it; Christmas always falls within the winter break).

    There ain’t nothing secular about Christmas and Easter and only someone who is culturally Christian to the extent that they view Christianity as the default and “normal” could claim that there was.

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  15. James Joyner says:

    @SKI:

    There ain’t nothing secular about Christmas and Easter and only someone who is culturally Christian to the extent that they view Christianity as the default and “normal” could claim that there was.

    Absolutely! But that describes much of America. Plenty of atheists, myself included, celebrate those holidays in an entirely secular way. Hell, I know Jewish people who celebrate those holidays. For all but the most observant, they’re basically recognition of seasonal passing and there is accompanying merriment and such but no Jesus in our celebrations.

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  16. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Gustopher: Easter is only the one day in the traditions in which I’ve practiced my faith–some Catholics and Lutherans pray the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday, but that doesn’t require the whole day and some do the Vigil–again, usually only an hour. Leave for vacation on Monday. Problem solved. (And sometimes airfare is lower too.)

  17. gVOR08 says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: My brother, the Reverend, talks about revolving door Christians, in at Christmas, out at Easter.

    How about we officially drop Easter and Christmas and do a Spring Equinox Week and a Winter Solstice Week covering New Years Day. That’s what Easter and Christmas preempted anyway.

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  18. Andy says:

    I think it’s reasonable to make some accommodations so that individuals can practice their religious beliefs. A policy that doesn’t schedule must-attend events on important religious dates and doesn’t punish people for not attending school (or leaving early/arriving late) seems entirely reasonable to me.

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  19. MarkedMan says:

    @SKI: That’s one way to look at it, but there is another, at least for Christmas. Virtually every cold climate group celebrates the shortest day, marking the new year as the days beginning to lengthen. No one has any idea when lil’ baby Jesus was born, so after a while church leaders gave up trying to stop the flock from celebrating a pagan holiday and declared it the kids birthday. After all these years I honestly just think of it as a collection of holidays form different ethnic groups all celebrating the same thing.

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  20. al Ameda says:

    @gVOR08:

    How about we officially drop Easter and Christmas and do a Spring Equinox Week and a Winter Solstice Week covering New Years Day. That’s what Easter and Christmas preempted anyway.

    Count me in.
    Anything that covers Christmas Eve, Christmas, New Year’s Eve and New Year Day …. is good by me. People cheat lie and steal to take those days off any way so let’s be honest and make them paid days off anyway.

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  21. DrDaveT says:

    @James Joyner:

    It’s just built into American culture

    Only if you have a narrow and problematic idea of what “American culture” is — and by extension what it is not. There is a gaping chasm between “most Americans celebrate ___” and “___ is built into American culture”. One is descriptive; the other wants to be prescriptive whenever it can be leveraged that way.

    The Trump years have made me extremely sensitive to how many Americans have an impoverished notion of which of their fellow Americans are just as American as they are. Whether December 25 is a federal holiday is not all that important to me; whether Americans who don’t celebrate Christmas are considered fully American is very important to me indeed, along with 1000 similar purity tests.

    4
  22. James Joyner says:

    @DrDaveT:

    Whether December 25 is a federal holiday is not all that important to me; whether Americans who don’t celebrate Christmas are considered fully American is very important to me indeed, along with 1000 similar purity tests

    Agreed.

    1
  23. Lounsbury says:

    @Kingdaddy: I rather believe you are underestimating the great importance also of talking bunnies in addition to coloured eggs. See Hop.

    Otherwise which Eid is being referred to, I should guess Eid El Edha (the sacrifice one). Eid in Arabic just means holiday so a bit ambiguous the reference (as several ‘minor’ Islamic Eids exist and one other major one).

    @KM: Ramadan is not Xmas mate, that’s Xian misunderstanding – it is a whole bloody month and religiously speaking, you’re not supposed to do holidays in it, you’re actually rather supposed to keep at your labour, as the whole religious point of it is to teach a lesson around need (fasting).

    @SKI: Don’t be an uptight twaddler. Excluding actual religious celebration, American style public Easter (involving a nearly pure focus on oddly coloured eggs and mythological talking rabbits which one should think are… not terrible Biblical) and public Xmas (involving odd quasi Nordic fat men with more a sense of some pastiche holiday wizard Merlin origin than again anything with a remote hint of actual Xianness…. even the name rather in American English rather strips away religious sense as compared to other languages) are grossly secular and largely vitiated of religious sense. All this rather bothers the puritanical faithful, and is quite bemusing as a cultural transformation.

    2
  24. Gustopher says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: But then you lose a few days of being somewhere else, and vacation days are scarce. Were I a Christian, I wouldn’t want my week of hedonistic debauchery in some pleasant locale with long-limbed pool boys to be trimmed a few days because of religious observances.

    Spring break would optimally be scheduled for the next full week after Easter. You’re done with Lent (and giving up Rum, Sodomy and the Lash), and you did your rabbit stew or brunch and the church thing, so you gather the family, head to the Caribbean, everyone does their separate thing during the day, and comes back and then lies about it over dinner.

    “I was reading a book on the beach.”

    “Me too.”

    “Funny we didn’t see each other.”

    “I guess we were all engrossed in our … books.”

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  25. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @gVOR08: In my experience, revolving door types are pretty rare. The more common thing that I’ve seen is people who attend church on exactly two days–Christmas Eve and Easter Sunday. And when I don’t recall that the Baptist church that I attended when young had service on Christmas Day unless it fell on a Sunday. Christmas Day is a family day, you see.

    And I don’t particularly care what holidays the society chooses to celebrate or what they call them, but I would prefer that they stop secularizing religious ones. People have enough difficulty practicing whatever faith they follow without having to make their holidays suitable to public consumption.

    1
  26. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Gustopher: I’ve known Christians who travel to a destination to celebrate Easter at a church away from home, too. Two of my students when I taught at a Christian school were excused the Friday before Spring Break (I don’t remember why we didn’t call it Easter Break, but we didn’t) for a family trip to Cabo (or maybe Cancun). Most want to be with extended family, though. The debauchery part is none of my business, but I did caution both girls to be warry about letting strangers buy them Margaritas.

  27. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Gustopher:

    Spring break would optimally be scheduled for the next full week after Easter. You’re done with Lent (and giving up Rum, Sodomy and the Lash)

    When people have asked me what I gave up for Lent, I’ve told them that being raised Baptist, I give up self-denial for Lent for about 20 years now.

  28. Gustopher says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: Every year I claim to have given up genocide for Lent.

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  29. Jax says:

    There would be a problem with “attendance” records and federal regulations, I think, if they let these students pick and choose which holidays to be gone from school. To make it fair, they’d have to allow all the non-religious students the same “Doesn’t count towards attendance records” days to miss.

    I get a warning email if my kid misses more than 5 days in a quarter, even with a doctor’s note saying she’s sick as hell. They almost failed my oldest daughter in 3rd grade because she missed most of March due to swine flu, and Type A and B flu, all at once.

    This is ALSO why school-aged children are literally swimming in a germ pool, thanks to attendance requirements.

    1
  30. JohnMcC says:

    @James Joyner: Just a little note after having read your comment late… To notice that the complete irrelevance of “Easter” to Easter Vacation is exactly the effect that has been the nightmare for the more “Christian” of the right wing religious sect that has significantly taken over the Republican Party. If religion is invested into political wars then Christ’s triumph over death has become just another opposition point to scan over with glazed partisan eyes. And they’ve done it themselves.

    My cousin was a Baptist pastor back in the early ’60s when this ‘Moral Majority’ and ‘pure Biblical’ (in SBC seminaries) business was getting started. He didn’t like what he saw while he lived and knowing how it would pain him to see how his movement has turned out maybe it’s good he died as young as he did.

    So it goes.

  31. de stijl says:

    @Gustopher:

    Rum, Sodomy & the Lash

    Pogues fan, I see.

    And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda

  32. de stijl says:

    @Gustopher:

    I believe my favorite Pogues song is Thousands Are Sailing

  33. de stijl says:

    In the day Half Time Rec was *the* place for Trad Irish music.

    Half the staff were expats or were dodging INS g-men.

    Iirc, the owner got in a bit of trouble for donations to an IRA affiliated “charity”.

    One of the most significant relationships of my life was with a woman I met there.

    Nowadays, it mostly books country acts: I find that really sad.

    It is in the ass end of nowhere northern St. Paul.

    I loved that joint so much.

  34. de stijl says:

    @Jax:

    Give everybody the right to n days per year for Holy days or holidays or whatever they choose to spend it on. Students and workers. For workers, above and beyond PTO.

    They can choose whatever days they want.