A warning letter from The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty to the Bakersfield City School District concerning its refusal to allow excused absences for students to observe religious holidays was not enough. Nor was an investigation by the Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Justice. Now the district risks a major lawsuit unless it changes its policy.
The Becket Fund's clients in this case include sisters Danielle and Alexandra Darling who left at noon to attend Ash Wednesday services in 2005 and received unexcused absences for practicing their faith. Unlike excused absences for many secular reasons such as attending chiropractic appointments and funeral services, absences for religious holidays at Bakersfield schools are regarded as unexcused — for now.
"We aim to teach the Bakersfield school board a lesson," said Kevin (Seamus) Hasson, founder and president of The Becket Fund, a Washington-based public interest law firm that protects the free public expression of all religious traditions. "They need to do their homework. This time, the textbooks are the United States Constitution and the Constitution of the State of California. And we invite the school board to visit our website to see that we do our homework when it comes to getting errant government bodies to pass the religious liberty test.
"It's unfortunate that we had to ask the Civil Rights Division to get involved, but we are serious about getting the school districts' leadership to graduate to our position," he said. "Not only should our clients' attendance records be corrected to show that their absences were excused, all future absences for religious holidays by all students in the district should be excused, as well."
The Becket Fund has written two letters to the school district — one in September and one in October — and the Civil Rights Division has begun its inquiry into the matter in an effort to get the district to reconsider its policy without going to court. The district replied to The Becket Fund's first letter only to stubbornly reiterate that the Darlings' observation of Ash Wednesday was not excused.