This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Area Muslims rejoiced earlier this week when the School District of Philadelphia announced it would formally observe two Muslim holidays, Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr.
So, too, did John Chin, executive director of the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp.
“I think it sends a very strong message that the school district is for everyone,” said Chin. “It’s a good conversation starter.”
Based on precedent set in other large school districts, that conversation may soon tilt to holidays such as the Lunar New Year, a widely observed celebration among Chin’s constituents, or Diwali, a Hindu holy day. In an age of increasing religious pluralism, school calendars have emerged as a new battleground.
Just ask the folks in Howard County, Maryland, a large suburban district wedged between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. Leaders there moved to rescind observance of two Jewish holidays in response to complaints from other religious groups. After intense backlash, the county instead decided to observe both Jewish holidays, two Muslim holidays, the Lunar New Year, and Diwali.
In 2015, New York City announced it would close schools on Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr. Three months later, it granted the same accommodation for Lunar New Year. Mayor Bill de Blasio has said there’s no wiggle room in the school calendar to add new holidays, but that hasn’t stopped Hindu activists from pressuring the city to observe Diwali.
Chin said he doesn’t know of any formal efforts to lobby Philadelphia leaders on the Lunar New Year. A Hindu advocacy group out of Reno, Nevada, did issue a press release calling on Philadelphia to make Diwali a school holiday, but the organization has a pattern of grafting on news events to generate headlines.
Still, experts warn school districts to use caution when futzing with religious holidays.
“I advise them to beware of the slippery slope,” says Charles Haynes, founding director of the Religious Freedom Center at the Newseum Institute in Washington. Haynes works with school districts on religious observance issues.
“The only reason they can add religious holidays to the calendar is if they have a good civic or secular reason for doing so," he said. "Otherwise, it’s unconstitutional.”