Lawyer Condemns Florida School Board’s Religious Holiday Ban

A Christian attorney is questioning the constitutionality of a decision by Hillsborough County School Board in Tampa, Florida, to eliminate all religious holiday vacation days from the school calendar.

Last year, local Muslims asked that students in the Florida school district be given a day off to observe Eid al-Fitr &#0151 an Islamic holiday marking the end of the month of Ramadan &#0151 just as students are excused for the Christian Good Friday and Jewish Yom Kippur holidays. The request came from a group called the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which also asked the board to consider putting Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, a celebration ending Muslims' annual Hajj to Mecca, on the district's master calendar so teachers might plan activities around them.

The Hillsborough County School Board delayed adoption of its 2005-06 and tentative 2006-07 calendars when the requests came up, after which more than 30 people sent letters supporting the Muslim group's suggestions. One school board member was quoted last January by the St. Petersburg Times as saying she expected her colleagues would address CAIR's concerns, though perhaps not right away. However, when the school district did act on the issue some time later, it was to vote to end vacation days for all religious holidays.

Christian attorney Mike Johnson with the Alliance Defense Fund calls the school officials' recent vote to ban all religion-based school holidays a “knee-jerk reaction” that needs to be corrected. While he understands why adding observances from Islam or other religious traditions to the public school calendar might generate concern, he feels throwing out all such “holy days” is an extreme response.

“I know that some Christians, for example, express frustration with the introduction of alternative viewpoints in public schools,” Johnson notes, “but free speech is a blessing that's guaranteed to all Americans by the First Amendment; and I think, ultimately, we have to ask ourselves, 'What is the power of the Christian viewpoint or the gospel in the free marketplace of ideas?'”

If Christians truly believe in the virtue and significance of their faith tradition and its truths, the attorney asserts, “then it should not mean that we have to restrict all other viewpoints in order for ours to be heard.” And it certainly should not mean that school officials should be compelled to stifle those alternate religious expressions, he adds.

In fact, Johnson contends, school officials “have an affirmative duty to respect the religious beliefs of all students.” And school districts should accommodate those beliefs by, for instance, allowing excused absences for religious observances “when a student's sincerely held religious belief requires it,” he says.

For Christian parents and other community members of faith who oppose the Florida school district's ban, the ADF representative advises them to bring their concerns to the school officials. Parents should urge the district not to “throw the baby out with the bath water,” he says. “We need to respect the religious beliefs of students in the district &#0151 not disrespect them by canceling everything.”

And for school officials concerned about the Constitution and the so-called separation of church and state, Johnson notes that, as long as the Hillsborough County School District is treating all religious faiths equally, it probably has nothing to worry about. Most likely, he says, the district will not be violating the law &#0151 unless any of its schools fails to accommodate a student's need to be excused for a religious holiday.

(This article courtesy of Agape Press.)

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