On campus, a move to end religious holidays

Every year it’s the same story: Another person, group, or institution attacks the observance of religious holidays in the name … Continued

Every year it’s the same story: Another person, group, or institution attacks the observance of religious holidays in the name of inclusion and open-mindedness. The idea is that somehow accommodating my religious observance is offensive to those who do not share the same beliefs.

Does allowing a Christian to celebrate Good Friday or a Jewish person to celebrate the first night of Passover harm those who do not wish to observe those religious holidays, or even more absurd, violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment?

Apparently, Stony Brook University
on Long Island, New York, believes that they do.

Stony Brook recently decided to end its longstanding practice of closing the university for major Christian and Jewish religious holidays such as Good Friday, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur.

This puts a majority of the university’s students, who are Christian or Jewish, in a rather awkward position.  As Rabbi Joseph Topek at Stony Brook’s Interfaith Center noted,
“Students are going to have to go begging to their professors, saying ‘I will not be able to come to class.’ It creates an unleveled playing field between students and faculty members.”

Not only that, but the committee of four tasked with making the new school calendar also scheduled finals
on Saturdays and Sundays for classes that regularly met on weekdays. After an outcry erupted from both student representatives and members of the campus’ interfaith community, the Vice President of Student Affairs proposed a new calendar.  That calendar does away with Sabbath and Sunday finals, but did not address the issue of mandatory classes on religious holidays.

Stony Brook’s Vice Provost, Charles Robbins, claims that the
move to remove religious holidays from the class schedule was based on a “goal … to increase the level of respect for everybody.” He actually claims that by preventing a majority of students from freely practicing their religious beliefs and by putting them in the awkward position of choosing between faith and classroom instruction that they are “trying to be inclusive, not exclusive.”

This is exactly the kind of illogical argument made every time a similar move is made or advocated: by failing to accommodate anyone’s religious observances, an entity sends a message of respect and tolerance to all religions.  No.  It sends a message that religious observance is a meaningless waste of time that interferes with the institution’s goals and cannot be tolerated.

I debated Vice Provost Robbins on Fox News, and he continued to make the absurd claim that somehow trampling religious beliefs of a majority of students by removing religious holidays from the academic calendar was needed to “show equal respect for all students.”

However, he admitted that Stony Brook was the only one of the four major university centers in the State University of New York (SUNY) system that has withdrawn religious holidays from its academic calendar.  The other three, Buffalo, Binghamton, and Albany, continue to accommodate students’ religious beliefs.

In this case, Stony Brook will end up accomplishing the exact opposite of its stated academic goals.  Rabbi Topek said it best:
“[T]here will be a negative effect academically. . . . Those will end up being empty days because a lot of students and faculty will not show up.”

In addition to being illogical and academically damaging, the new policy is just plain legally wrong.  Stony Brook is actually demonstrating an unwarranted hostility toward religious students and staff, especially considering that the initial proposal included scheduling exams on Saturdays and Sundays.  It is breaking with a long American tradition of government accommodation of religious practice.

As the Supreme Court has stated,
[T]he Constitution . . . affirmatively mandates accommodation, not merely tolerance, of all religions, and forbids hostility toward any. … Anything less would require the ‘callous indifference’ we have said was never intended by the Establishment Clause.”  More specific to Stony Brook’s supposed concerns, the
Supreme Court held, “When the state . . . cooperates with religious authorities by adjusting the schedule of public events to sectarian needs, it follows the best of our traditions. . . . To hold that it may not would be to find in the Constitution a requirement that the government show a callous indifference to religious groups.”

The point is that the Constitution not only permits accommodation of religion, the law encourages, and in some cases, requires it.

Earlier this week, the ACLJ, including myself and my dad, Jay Sekulow, sent a letter to Stony Brook
outlining these legal points, noting that Stony Brook’s own policies and New York State law encourage religious accommodation, and urging the university to reverse its new, callous schedule.

In that letter, we stated:

 “In this situation, the Constitution supports Stony Brook’s past tradition of accommodating religious observances, which is consistent with the longstanding national tradition of adjusting public schedules to alleviate significant burdens upon religious exercise whenever possible. By all accounts, the past practice was quite successful in taking religious considerations into account while also furthering the administration’s interests. By contrast, both the terms of the new calendar and the secretive, exclusionary process used to create it strongly signal a hostility to religious adherents. This hostility is neither required nor justified by the Constitution.”

In Twenty-First Century America, we should be at a place culturally where we can accept other’s religious views and accommodate their reasonable religious observances, just as Stony Brook had done for decades.

  • dlafave

    From a legal standpoint you’re conflating two issues:

    (1) Whether the Establishment Clause requires the a state university to operate on religious holidays, and

    (2) Whether the Free Exercise Clause requires a state university to not operate on religious holidays.

    The answer to both of these questions is no. Constitutionally, Stony Brook is free to operate or not to operate on those days. However, students go to school there and pay tuition fees to get an education. Why should students of other religions, students of no religion, and Jews and Christians who are happy to go to class on these holidays be deprived of that education? My university operates on all religious holidays (other than Christmas) but it provides abundant accommodation for observant students. Professors take a no-questions-asked approach to absences on those days and they often record their lectures so students can listen later. The university furthers its principal educational goal while accommodating religious students. Why is that system worse than one where all students miss important instruction because of religious holidays?

  • WmarkW

    As a practical matter, universities don’t like holidays because the operate on different schedules on different days, and they need to keep them balanced. If they close for both MLK and President’s day, the Monday discussion sections fall two weeks behind the ones that meet Wednesday and Friday. At the end of the semester, they want to have held the same number of instructional days on each day of the week.


    Oh noes. The world has just got to stop because some weird sect or cult is having its high ooga-booga days. Nothing would ever get done if you had to close for all of them.

    Students that religious should only go to religious schools and get out of the way of real people in real colleges.

  • thehorseshoehoney

    I really believed our nation had moved beyond segregation. By telling Christians or Muslims they are not allowed to observe their holiday is no different than whites not allowing blacks to be served at restaurants prior to the civil rights movement. Furthermore, according to their academic calendar they have MLK day scheduled as a holiday. Is that their way of saying it’s okay for African Americans to celebrate what they believe in, but it’s not okay for Christians or Muslims to celebrate their beliefs? This very idea goes against everything Martin Luther King, Jr. stood for. The very definition of equality is the state or quality of being equal. This does not mean that we are equal unless it offends someone else, rather we have the freedom to openly celebrate and stand up for the things that are of great value to us…all of us.

  • Zeppjerk

    Nobody believes in Martin Luther King Jr. We’re all really, really confident that he happened.

    Pedantry aside, “I get certain days off because my faith is attached to an organization powerful enough to make a fuss” doesn’t seem like a fair system at all. What about the cultures that worship on Fridays? What about those Catholics with their ten million Saints, each with its own holy day?

    Furthermore, I think this article overestimates the difficulties posed by having class on a holy day- If there were class on Christmas, I’d just open my presents before or after class. No worries- I can change my personal schedule to meet the demands of the wider world. I suppose it’d be a problem if I genuinely intended to spend the entire day in joyous prayer, but I honestly don’t know anyone that devout- And if they are that devout, they probably would be better off with a religious institute that can satisfy all of their spiritual needs.

    TL: DR

    No one is silencing you, or saying you can’t pray. We’re just not going to reschedule everything based on *your* needs anymore.

  • nellberry07tellall

    This is just one more instance of the desecration of our Constitution and our country. They hate our country and what it stands for, so they want to destroy every aspect of religion/Christianity. Religion is not necessarily a synonym for Christianity. You are probably religious in your work; religious in your football devotion; you are probably religious in the fact that you go to the bank every so often to deposit or receive funds from your account. But being a Christian is not being religious. A Christian is a Christian by his faith in the Creator and Jesus Christ. You are not a Christian because you BELIEVE IN Jesus. The devil believes and his demons believe and they tremble. But they are not Christians. Christianity is being born of the Spirit/born again. Although that term is abused greatly in todays secular society. Born again is having been re-born by the Holy Spirit of God, God in three persons, Holy Trinity. They are offended by that so they make fun; make jokes; deride; and persecute those who are born again, because it makes them look at their sin. They can’t stand to look at their sin. It is obhorrent to them. Therefore, they avoid it and redicule those who have the gift of the Holy Spirit of God. His Holy Spirit resides in those who have been born of the Spirit. That’s why they redicule Tebow.


    And we ridicule you for not knowing how to spell ridicule.

    Same root as “ridiculous”- like you Christians and your faux persecution complex.


    And nothing in the Constitution says you are immune to criticism and ridicule.

    You obviously understand nothing about the Constitution and wish to misrepresent it to reflect your religious bias. Typical Christian stuff.

  • Secular1

    Mr. Sekulow, yes there should be no place for religion in the public square, period. That does not mean you cannot believe in your fairy tales. I will support your right to believe in the fairy tales of your choice, just the same way I support the members of Elk Lodge have right to their secret salutes. But by the same token you do not get day off any more than Elks get day of for Elkimas.

  • PhilyJimi

    I am an atheist and I find this silly. It is just practical to close for traditional religious holidays. The traditional religious holidays have become so commercial anyways that they have become secular.

  • PhilyJimi

    nellberry07tellall – Why didn’t you make a point? You stated “This is just one more instance of the desecration of our Constitution and our country. ” Then you didn’t make a single point that supported your position as to exactly how the Constitution has been desecrated.

    The Constitution doesn’t say anything specifically about Jesus and it doesn’t endorse any god(s) so your rant about the Big J doesn’t make a lick of sense.

  • longjohns

    Actually, another view is that Church is forcing students to choose between learning and religion.

  • hearthasreasons

    I’m a little disapointed by the tone of some of these arguments. People on both sides of the faith-atheist divide need to realize that the other side isn’t going to just go away any time soon. Part of what freedom of religion (or freedom of conscience) means to me is respecting another person’s beliefs and their right to choose those beliefs, even if I find them ridiculous. That doesn’t mean not questioning them, it doesn’t mean accepting them, just that in the long run, I can’t change another person’s mind against their will. Using the power of government or public institutions to discourage or make difficult the practice of any religion is what the Constitution forbids. However, people of faith really shouldn’t expect the world to bend over backwards in every case, either. My own faith tradition is replete with stories of people who forgo opportunities that would conflict with their beliefs. Maybe the most famous example is Eric Liddell (remember the movie “Chariots of Fire?”). His story ended with an arrangement of sorts, but the same story is repeated without any such accomodation as hundreds of Mormon teenagers sit out athletic contests that happen on Sundays, and willingly accept the consequences. I guess my point is that while I believe that anyone’s religious beliefs should always be respected and be accomodated where reasonable, I also believe, and expect in my own life, that adherence to my religion will entail some personal sacrifice.

  • plattitudes

    No… the ‘church’ (either Christian or Jewish) does not tell the students that they cannot attend class on those days. Rather, it is the SCHOOL that is forcing the students (and some faculty) to choose between learning (or teaching) and religion.

  • Catken1

    Awww, poor baby, so warred upon. You’re still the majority, still got churches on every street, still have political candidates falling all over themselves to appeal to you…but now you just don’t get preferential treatment for your religious holidays if you choose to attend a secular public college.

    Welcome to the world that those of us who aren’t Christian or Jewish have been living in for ever, where you get to take your religious holidays off only if you have enough time off available to you, or don’t mind missing classes, or can otherwise fit it in. Why should you get special favorite-child treatment?

  • Catken1

    “By telling Christians or Muslims they are not allowed to observe their holiday is no different than whites not allowing blacks to be served at restaurants prior to the civil rights movement. ”

    No one’s telling you you’re not allowed to observe your holiday. You just don’t get people bending over backwards to give you the day off.

    Members of minority religions have always had to adjust their schedule, negotiate with professors or bosses, and take paid time off in order to celebrate their holidays, while Christians (and sometimes Jews, and very, very occasionally Muslims) get their holidays handed to them free, without having to make any sacrifices or adjustments, or lose any vacation days. Now, Stony Brook is just putting you all on the same footing as everyone else. How is that persecution, pray tell?

  • Catken1

    Comparing the lack of a free day off for your religious holiday to blacks not being served at restaurants is a bit much.

    What you are doing, in fact, is the equivalent of white people whining that they don’t get a free entree just for being white.

  • haveaheart

    What follows is from the Stony Brook University website:

    Some students may be unable to attend classes on certain days because of religious beliefs. Section 224-a of the New York State Education Law provides that:

    1. No person shall be expelled from or be refused admission as a student to an institution of higher education for the reason that he or she is unable, because of his or her religious beliefs, to register or attend classes or to participate in any examination, study, or work requirements on a particular day or days.

    2. Any student in an institution of higher education who is unable, because of his or her religious beliefs, to attend classes on a particular day or days shall, because of such absence on the particular day or days, be excused from any examination or any study or work requirements.

    3. It shall be the responsibility of the faculty and of the administrative officials of each institution of higher education to make available to each student who is absent from school, because of his or her religious beliefs, an equivalent opportunity to register for classes or make up any examination, study, or work requirements which he or she may have missed because of such absence on any particular day or days. No fees of any kind shall be charged by the institution for making available to the said student such equivalent opportunity.

    4. If registration, classes, examinations, study, or work requirements are held on Friday after 4:00 p.m. or on Sat­urday, similar or makeup classes, examinations, study, or work requirements, or opportunity to register shall be made available on other days, where it is possible and practicable to do so. No special fees shall be charged to the student for these classes, ex­am­inations, study, or work requirements, or registration held on other days.

    5. In effectuating the provisions of this section, it shall be the duty of the faculty and of the administrative officials of each institution of higher education to exercise the fullest me

  • XVIIHailSkins

    Which is no choice at all. Get to class, pat yourself on the back for being pious later.

  • dcrswm

    @plattitudes – The school is not telling the kids not to go to church. The school is simply saying that these students need to make their own decision if they wish to be educated for 2012 at school or if they want to learn about spooky ghost stories in church. No one is forcing these kids to do anything other than make a decision.

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