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School Closings - Can Public Schools Close for Religious Holidays?

Balancing Observance of Religious Holidays with Church/State Separation


The most obvious evidence of school attempts to accommodate people’s religious beliefs and the one thing which is sure to affect everyone involved, regardless of their religious beliefs, is the decision to simply close a school during a religious holiday. Traditionally, this has only occurred around Christmas, but that is starting to change.


Tradition of Christian Privilege

The question of closing school is a difficult dilemma for school administrators: if they keep schools open, they risk being portrayed as insensitive to the minority religious faiths in their community; but if they close the schools, they risk being portrayed as trying to show favoritism. This, of course, is a consequence of the tradition of always closing for Christmas — if schools never closed for any religious holiday, there could be no charges of favoritism and little basis for the allegation of any particular insensitivity.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that schools can simply refuse to close on holidays like Christmas. The fact of the matter is, when there are enough followers of a particular religion in a community, you can be sure that on major holidays there will be a high degree of absenteeism in the schools.

It might be reasonably argued that schools would be showing hostility towards religion if they didn’t try help students make up for missed work, but it can be easier for schools to simply close and keep everyone at the same stage of instruction. This has been the reason given by school districts when their closing policies have been challenged and the courts have thus far accepted it as a fair and reasonable argument. School closings for major religious holidays have been found constitutional.


Equal Treatment for All Religions

Just because it's constitutional for schools to close on the holidays of popular religions does not mean that it is wise. As minority religious groups grow in size, self-confidence, and social power, they have begun to demand equal treatment; for school districts, this means that they cannot close for Christian and Jewish holidays without risking that members of other religions will complain about it. Schools can counter that without enough absenteeism, closings aren’t warranted — but as even Jewish leaders have pointed out, the disparate treatment means that students of minority faiths are made to feel like outsiders. This is just the sort of thing which the First Amendment is supposed to prevent the government from causing.

The only solution would seem to be fully equal treatment — either strict separation and no closings for any religion, or complete accommodation and closings for every religion. Neither option is likely to be taken by schools; the former would infuriate Christian majorities and the latter is a logistical nightmare. The consequence will be increased conflict among religious groups as minority faiths grow less and less accepting of the preferences and privileges accorded to Jewish and Christian beliefs.

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