DLA Piper Professor of Law Michael Meyerson contributed an op-ed to The Washington Post online about the Howard County Board of Education’s vote on its 2016-17 calendar, which is scheduled for this evening. The vote is to decide whether the county’s schools will be closed for the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as they have been every year for four decades.
Last fall, the school board announced it was considering a change to the calendar that would keep the schools open on those holidays. The announcement came after the board received school-closing requests from members of the Muslim, Hindu and East Asian communities, who sought recognition for the Eid al-Adha, Diwali and Lunar New Year holidays.
The board’s proposal to keep schools open on the two Jewish holidays met with strenuous opposition from not just the Jewish community, but also from the Muslim, Hindu and East Asian communities. All argued that the proposed calendar would not mitigate the unfairness of closing for only some religious holidays because Howard County schools are required by state law to be shut for Good Friday, Easter Monday and Christmas.
In “Closed schools, open minds” (April 13), Meyerson wrote: “[T]he committee’s proposal for closing schools for some religious holidays but not those celebrated by minority religions raises grave danger that the Board of Education can and must address. The county has a vital interest in communicating that all religious faiths are welcome and respected, and a truly pluralistic calendar decision with schools closed for all of those dates would serve that constitutionally permissible goal. It would prevent what the Supreme Court has repeatedly warned against: governmental action that conveys ‘a message that religion or a particular religious belief is favored or preferred.’”
He concluded: “At a time when religious conflict engulfs much of the world and a major presidential candidate can recommend closing the United States’ borders to the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, the actions of a small county school board may seem trivial. But it is precisely at such a time that the Howard County Board of Education can take the lead in teaching its community and beyond the power of respecting the broad range of religious and cultural practices of its citizens.”
Meyerson is the author of Endowed by Our Creator: The Birth of Religious Freedom in America.