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When Should Districts Observe Religious Holidays?

Some districts are finding that whether or not to include religious holidays on the academic calendar should be determined by what works best for each individual community.

Whether or not to include religious holidays on the academic calendar has been a long-standing debate. However, some districts are finding that the solution lies not in a universal interpretation of the First Amendment, but simply in what works best for each individual district and community.

"Although national and state standards are helpful in certain aspects of the operation of a school district, too much state and federal control can hinder local districts from meeting the needs of the community," says David Muston, communications director of Dearborn (Mich.) Public Schools. Back in 2003, the district decided to include two Muslim holidays as vacation days on its academic calendar. According to Muston, the district was merely responding to the needs of its community. With a high population of Muslim families, enrollment on those days fell to particularly low levels, which reduces funding from the state.

"It would make sense for each school district to determine if there is a need to observe a Muslim holiday, Jewish holiday, the first day of hunting season, or any significant event that would impact the educational process," says Muston. On Dec. 13, Harvard (Mass.) Public Schools reviewed its policy and voted to include only federal holidays on its calendar. The district had previously observed such holidays as Good Friday, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. "It was apparent very early that there wasn't going to be a consensus or agreement," says Superintendent Thomas Jefferson. "There were strong feelings on both sides."

Jefferson notes that a neighboring school system, Cambridge (Mass.) Public School District, recently voted to observe two Muslim holidays and is being encouraged by the Universal Society of Hinduism to include a Hindu holiday as well.

"There's no magic number in terms of what direction a school should take," says Jefferson. "You must take into account the composition of the community."