Philly Schools Add Muslim Holidays by Cutting Jewish One


Back when public schools were overwhelmingly Christian, scheduling religious holidays meant closing for Christmas and, in some places, for Jewish high holidays.  As American school populations change, deciding for which religious holidays schools should close and on what basis becomes more complex.

According to Anti-Defamation League religious freedom counsel David Barkey, consistently with the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, "[p]ublic schools can't close to observe a holiday, but can if there's an appropriate secular reason.  The reason usually is the level of absenteeism" that would hamper schooling.

Philadelphia's Mayor Jim Kenney suggested a different standard in announcing the city's decision to close public schools for Muslim holidays.  Rather than focusing on practical need, Kenney explained: "Our city was built on the idea that ... the city welcomes all to worship and practice the faiths of our culture or our choosing[.] ... We have to take into account how society sometimes ostracizes and eliminates people from the mainstream[.]"  In other words, schools should close on minorities' religious holidays so their adherents feel accepted.

Sadly, Philadelphia's approach to holiday closures fails both standards.  Its public schools closed June 12, 2018, in time for Muslim students to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, beginning June 15.  Without determining whether the numbers of practitioners necessitated the change, Philadelphia added Muslim holidays to its calendar to make Muslims feel welcome – and paid for it partly by reducing Jewish holiday observances, school district documents show.  What's more, the school district underhandedly failed to identify the reasons for the change.

Philadelphia Changes Its School Calendar

On May 31, 2016, Philadelphia school district superintendent Dr. William Hite announced: "I'm honored and proud to announce that the school district fully intends to honor the eid celebrations for the many Muslim students and staff that celebrate these holidays."  The 2016-17 academic calendar had already been finalized, Hite explained, so the holidays would be added in future years.

On December 15, 2016, Philadelphia's School Reform Commission (SRC) adopted an unusual two-year calendar, for 2017-18 and 2018-19, which moved school start and end dates so as to bypass the two Muslim festivals both years, while reducing the Rosh Hashanah holiday beginning in 2018-19.

Specifically, Eid al-Adha began September 2, 2017, on Labor Day weekend; Philadelphia schools started Tuesday, September 5.  School ended June 12, 2018; Eid al-Fitr began June 15.  In 2018-19, Eid al-Adha is expected to begin August 22; school starts the following Monday, August 27.  School will end June 4, 2019; Eid al-Fitr is expected to begin on June 5.

Effective 2018-19, the new calendar also eliminates a day from Jewish high-holiday closures.  Schools will close September 10 and be open September 11.  For many years, Philadelphia closed public school for both days of Rosh Hashanah and for Yom Kippur.  The reasons were practical: many public school teachers were Jewish, and so were several students.  It made sense to close schools rather than find a large number of substitute teachers, or teach with several students absent.

School district spokesman Harold Whack denied that the calendar change had anything to do with Muslim holidays.  Cheryl Logan, the school district's chief of academic support, claimed that the school year was moved to give students more schooling earlier in the year.

Nevertheless, briefing notes for school superintendent Hite's January 17, 2017 talk at a forum on "diverse and inclusive schools" boasted about the district's "signature initiatives," including "School District Calendar-SRC approves the recognition and observance of Muslim holy days: Eid al-Fitr AND Eid al-Adha on District calendar."  A month after the new calendar was adopted, Hite boasted that the school district had succeeded in its signature initiative of recognizing Muslim holidays.

Logan identified Philly Eid Coalition, a consortium representing the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and other groups, as a stakeholder in creating the school calendar.

Although Whack claimed that the calendar was changed after an "open process" that included Jewish community members, he could not name a single Jewish leader consulted or a single instance in which the intent to reduce Jewish holiday closures was spelled out.  A school district email from Logan obtained through an open records request claimed that the school district would include "Bnai Brith" in an October 11, 2016 meeting, but there is no indication that it actually did or that holiday closure changes were explained at the meeting.  According to Robin Burstein, senior associate regional director of the ADL's Philadelphia chapter, the group has no record or recollection of having been consulted about reducing the Rosh Hashanah holiday.  Despite an open records request for same, the school district produced no records that it disclosed to the Jewish community its intention to reduce Jewish holiday closures before enacting the changed calendar, let alone that it did so to make room for Muslim holiday closures.

Philadelphia's Rationale Fails to Satisfy First Amendment

Clearly, Philadelphia did not adopt the ADL's approach to scheduling religious holidays.  It did not determine how many teachers or students wanted Jewish holidays off, nor does it have good data about the number of Muslims, let alone how many want holidays off.  Whack stated that the school district did not know how many teachers or students are Jewish.  He refused to answer whether it knew how many are Muslim.  Hite's briefing notes assert that there are "28,000 Muslims in the School District," but neither it nor Whack provided a source for that statistic.

U.S. census data indicated that there were only 39,540 Muslims in Philadelphia City and County in 2010.  In 2013, Temple University professor Khalid Blankinship estimated that there were 30,000 Muslims in Philadelphia.  Using either number, a school-age population of 28,000 seems excessive.

The 2009 Jewish Population Study of Greater Philadelphia estimated that the city has 66,800 Jews.

The Philly Eid Coalition sought closures on the grounds that their lack meant that Muslim "students and workers in Philadelphia don't feel Islam is treated with the same respect as other faiths recognized and observed by our City."  CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper similarly applauded New York City's decision to close for Muslim holidays, "When these holidays are recognized, it's a sign that Muslims have a role in the political and social fabric of America."  This is the approach Philadelphia seems to have adopted, but how shortening Jewish holidays to incorporate Muslim ones demonstrates respect for Judaism remains a mystery.

How to incorporate minority religious holidays into school calendars, without unduly disrupting schooling for non-observers or unfairly favoring some at the expense of others, is an issue likely to recur.  With increasing success, CAIR has lobbied for eid (holiday) closures in New York City; Montgomery County, Maryland; Jersey City and Clifton, New Jersey; Waterbury, Connecticut; Broward County, Florida; and elsewhere.  For the 2017-18 school year, public schools in New York City and Jersey City started after Eid al-Adha and closed for Eid al-Fitr.  Montgomery County schools started after Eid al-Adha and ended just before Eid al-Fitr.  American schools also have increasing populations of Buddhists and Hindus.

Readers may decide for themselves whether Philadelphia's reorienting its school year to accommodate Muslim holidays, while simultaneously reducing Jewish holiday observances – without having or seeking good data about the need for holiday closures – squares with the First Amendment or demonstrates equality, respect, and acceptance for both religious minorities.

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