I’m reading Stephen Prothero’s essay in USA TODAY (December 20, 2010) promoting the closing of pubic schools for religious holy days. Dr. Prothero (whose work I admire and use in my courses) notes that public schools already close for some Christian and Jewish holy days, and urges us to add Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and Wiccan holy days as well. I disagree.
First of all, our kids need more school days not less.
Second, the only Christian holy day we close schools for is Christmas (more on that below). Easter, arguably the most holy day of the Christian calendar is not a federal holiday, and if some schools close for Good Friday they do so for the same reason some schools close for Rosh HaShanah: demographics.
Third, public schools don’t close for the Jewish holy days. Some schools designate Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur as “teacher work days” because so many of their teachers are Jewish and will take those days off anyway. And they do so only if these holy days fall on school days. And they only close one day for Rosh HaShanah not the two days most Jews observe. So public schools aren’t really closing for the Jewish holy days, they are closing because it is impractical to stay open.
Fourth, public schools are supposed to be secular, and secular schools should not close for religious holy days any more than Catholic schools should close for Hindu holy days. If there are Hindu kids enrolled in the Catholic school, they may choose not to attend class in honor of Diwali, for example, but the school itself need not close.
Fifth, whose holy days would we honor and whose would we ignore? If we are truly inclusive schools wouldn’t open at all.
Which brings me to Christmas. Public Schools do close for Christmas. Is that fair? Yes. Doesn’t that violate church/state separation? No. We are a country with a deeply Christian history and as such we honor the birthday of Jesus the way we honor the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. Both of these birthdays are federal holidays because America would not be America with them.
Making Christmas a federal holiday is more of a threat to the holiness of Christmas than it is to the Constitution. According to the same issue of USA TODAY, “Many [people] skip the holiday’s religious side.” While 90% of Americans celebrate Christmas only 74% say Christmas is “primarily” a religious holy day, only 47% go to church on Christmas Eve or Christmas day, and only 28% tell or read the biblical story of Jesus birth. Sadly for Christians, Christmas is going the way of many other federal holidays: just another day for tacky car ads and excessive shopping.
For me Christmas is a time to honor the most famous rabbi of all time, and I will do that in traditional Jewish fashion: I will argue with everything he had to say.