After granting two Muslim holidays, what’s next for the Philly School District?

Worshipers in New York's East Harlem neighborhood take part in the traditional annual prayer commemorating Eid al-Fitr

Worshipers in New York's East Harlem neighborhood take part in the traditional annual prayer commemorating Eid al-Fitr

Area Muslims rejoiced earlier this week when the School District of Philadelphia announced it would formally observe two Muslim holidays, Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr.

So too did John Chin, executive director of the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation.

“I think it sends a very strong message that the school district is for everyone,” said Chin. “It’s a good conversation starter.”

Based on precedent set in other large school districts, that conversation may soon tilt to holidays such as the Lunar New Year, a widely observed celebration among Chin’s constituents, or Diwali, a Hindu holy day. In an age of increasing religious pluralism, school calendars have emerged as a new battleground.

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Just ask the folks in Howard County, Maryland, a large suburban district wedged between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. Leaders there moved to rescind observance of two Jewish holidays in response to complaints from other religious groups. After intense backlash, the county instead decided to observe both Jewish holidays, two Muslim holidays, the Lunar New Year, and Diwali.

In 2015, New York City announced it would close schools on Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr. Three months later, it granted the same accommodation for Lunar New Year. Mayor Bill de Blasio has said there’s no wiggle room in the school calendar to add new holidays, but that hasn’t stopped Hindu activists from pressuring the city to observe Diwali.

Chin said he doesn’t know of any formal efforts to lobby Philadelphia leaders on the Lunar New Year. A Hindu advocacy group out of Reno, Nevada, did issue a press release calling on Philadelphia to make Diwali a school holiday, but the organization involved has a pattern of grafting on news events to generate headlines.

Still, experts warn school districts to take caution when futzing with religious holidays.

“I advise them to beware of the slippery slope,” says Charles Haynes, founding director of the religious freedom center at the Newseum in Washington. Haynes works with school districts on religious observance issues.

“The only reason they can add religious holidays to the calendar is if they have a good civic or secular reason for doing so,” he said.  “Otherwise, it’s unconstitutional.”  

It’s unconstitutional, Haynes said, because observing a holiday just for its religious significance violates the separation of church and state. School districts must instead prove there’s some nonreligious reason to take the day off, such as high absenteeism among students or teachers.

“Even if they come up with a good secular purpose, they have to realize that if they accommodate one group, tomorrow they will be asked to accommodate another,” said Haynes. “And never it really ends.”

Haynes, it should be said, is only speculating on the constitutionality of scheduling religious holidays. To his knowledge, no major court cases have outlined the burden of proof school districts must meet to close schools on days of religious observance. The ACLU did bring suit against a small Ohio school district after it declared days off for two Jewish holidays. The district, however, backed down, and the parties settled.

Asked why the School District of Philadelphia chose to observe Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr, spokesman Fernando Gallard said the district simply takes these issues “one request at a time.” The Philadelphia Eid Coalition campaigned for years, asking the district to change its policy. The district responded in kind. There was no formal assessment of absenteeism, Gallard said, and district superintendent William Hite had sole discretion over the decision.

“It was a response to lobbying from outside groups,” Gallard said.

The Philadelphia Eid Coalition has argued the district’s large Muslim student population necessitates observing Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr. But it’s tough to tell just how big that population is. The school district does not track religious preference. Nor does the U.S. Census.

Literature from the Philadelphia Eid Coalition states more than 200,000 Muslims reside the greater Philadelphia area and attributes the number to “Pew.” It also states that 20 percent of Philadelphia students are Muslim, but does not cite a source for the statistic. Attempts to contact the Philadelphia Eid Coalition for clarification were unsuccessful.

A 2010 religious census conducted by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies found just under 40,000 Muslims living in the city of Philadelphia.

All of which is to say, it’s tough to judge which religious or religious holidays should merit a day off and which shouldn’t.

Gallard said the district will consider other religious requests as they roll in. He downplayed the significance of adding two Muslim holidays to the calendar, noting that Good Friday, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur have long been observed.

“The Pandora’s box opened a long time ago,” he said.

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