Erase Religion from School Calendars?

Christmas Tree

I learned much of what I know about other religions by teaching children and working with colleagues of other faiths in Montgomery County Public Schools, Maryland. Having spent much of my childhood in an all-white, all Protestant, mostly evangelical town—where we had not even a Catholic or an Episcopalian—I had not a single conversation with anyone of a non-Christian faith until I moved to the Maryland suburbs. This is the place where I learned to appreciate and understand the value of diversity of cultures and faiths.

Because of that, I watched with mixed emotions this week as the school system I work for made the national news when Board members voted to remove all references to religious observances from the school calendar. The decision followed a request in the spring from Muslim community leaders to give the Islamic holy day Eid al-Adha equal standing with the Jewish holy day Yom Kippur, which falls on the same date next November. After some discussion one Board member offered an amendment to remove references to Christian holidays as well, and the Board, with only one dissent, voted in favor of omitting the names of the holidays from the calendar.

It was a decision that pleased almost no one in any of the three major religious communities in the county. And in a system where schools receive a calendar designating days when we are not permitted to assign homework because of religious observances, this decision will surely lead to more than a little confusion for teachers.

Federal law, of course, does not allow public schools to endorse or promote any particular religion. The school board reasoned that the system cannot, by law, close for any religious holiday unless there is a secular reason for doing so. The system began closing on Jewish holidays in the 1970s, when the rate of both student and teacher absenteeism was so high that it was difficult to staff classrooms where, in some schools, less than half the class was present.

For the moment, at least, schools will still be closed on Christian and Jewish holy days. How will the school calendar name those days next year? I’m not sure. It seems to me more than a little like “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” We will all stand by and watch, but none of us who work for the system will be able to give voice to what is obvious to everyone.

So how do we have conversations about religious faiths that, for many of us, form the core of our identities? How do we teach an appreciation for all religions and none? How do we teach our students to value what can be learned from every culture and every faith?

Teaching here has not always been a comfortable education for me. In my early years here, I taught two cousins who were Sikh. One, a girl, was a delightful student, easy to engage and eager to read. The other, a boy, constantly questioned authority. When he was unhappy with a grade and threatened me bodily harm—something I’d never had happen up to that point—I assumed, as somewhat of a feminist, that he had learned from his culture not to respect women. When I shared that assumption with my principal, he supported me by addressing the student’s behavior but gently told me that he wasn’t comfortable with the stereotype I’d voiced. He was the first person to challenge my worldview, and I’m very thankful now that he did.

In the years since then, as I have opened myself to others, those who have been willing to share their perspectives with me have enriched my life. I have come to believe that our future depends on learning to share meals at a common table, to share stories of our lives and our children, to work together for a better world.

Our system offers a course in Comparative Religions, and I’ve watched over and over again as the students who elect to take this course come away from it changed. Yes, a few of them do begin to question their own faith, but most of them learn that every faith has something to value. And I wonder if our world might be a better place if all of us had such an experience.

If, somehow, all of us learned to value worldviews other than our own, perhaps we might be able to let go of the fear that grips us when we identify a religion only with its extremists.

How do we do that? I don’t know. But I think it’s imperative that we somehow find the answers together.

2 thoughts on “Erase Religion from School Calendars?”

  1. Beautifully stated, as always.

    I have given this topic some thought for a while, and I think I’ve come up with a reason for supporting this decision: “science.”

    Many years ago, our so-called secular society decided that Christmas Day should be a national holiday. Along the way, we also decided that Veteran’s Day, President’s Day, Columbus Day, and a handful of other days are also national holidays. Federal workers get paid leave for these days because they are officially recognized as national holidays. When I was younger, it seemed that most other governments, school systems, and businesses also observed these days.

    Over the years, we’ve stopped observing these holidays in the ways we used to. Where there used to be parades, memorial services, celebrations and other unique events, they are now sales events. Except for government employees, most people work or attend school on these days. There are no constituencies asking for schools to be closed or businesses to respect these days. Even the bargains aren’t what they used to be. Yet no one complains about working these days.

    On the other hand, most government and commercial facilities still close down on Christmas. Notwithstanding the politics of doing otherwise, the very practical reason for the shutdown is that most Americans want and expect to celebrate on Christmas Day, and would take a vacation day if the holiday did not exist. Likewise, retail businesses depend on the Christmas holiday for their success. If we stopped letting people celebrate Christmas by having the day off, they would stop the spending frenzy that has become the American tradition.

    Thus the reason we still (mostly) observe Christmas as a national holiday is very practical: very few workers would shop or work anyway. For those who might, it would not be cost effective to open and heat office and retail buildings. Nevertheless, some businesses, such as Chinese restaurants, owned by folks who don’t celebrate Christmas, traditionally open to serve other folks who don’t celebrate Christmas, such as Jews. These days, perhaps signaling a shift toward a more secular society, more retail operations are remaining open on Christmas Day. They do so for one reason only: they make money.

    Back to MCPS: I am in favor of removing holiday names from the calendar. Instead, those days will be marked simply as “No School for Students and Staff.” We will understand that, in Montgomery County, MD, the absentee rate on those days is so high that it’s just not practical to hold class. Should the number of students and staff observing a Muslim holiday increase to the point of a significant absentee rate, we should also close schools on those holidays as well. It’s not about religion. It’s about the data. Science.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *