WASHINGTON (Aug. 29)
Jewish groups are criticizing a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union that seeks to block a suburban Cincinnati school district from canceling classes on the High Holidays.
The ACLU said the Sycamore Community School District’s decision to close on Yom Kippur violates the constitutional prohibition against establishing one religion above others.
The school district said it instituted the policy as a practical matter in light of the high number of absences on those days in the past. As a result, its 6,200 students will be given a day off on Yom Kippur, which falls on Sept. 20 this year.
The district is located northeast of Cincinnati in a community with a growing Jewish population.
Numerous school districts around the country with large Jewish populations close on the High Holidays. Although court action has been brought challenging school closures on other religious holidays, the ACLU lawsuit is believed to be the first involving Jewish holidays.
The lawsuit, filed by the ACLU on Aug. 25 on behalf of Muslim and Hindu families who opposed the policy, seeks a permanent injunction against the district policy adopted last year of closing for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Rosh Hashanah falls on a Saturday this year.
Members of the Muslim and Hindu communities asked the ACLU to file a lawsuit after the district refused to close its schools in observance of their own holidays.
Bruce Armstrong, superintendent of Sycamore schools, said the policy was adopted because it found on average about 15 percent of the student population in seven schools was absent on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. By comparison, about 5 percent are absent on Muslim and Hindu holidays.
“What we found is that it affected the quality of the educational day,” he said of the absences on the High Holidays.
“Teachers and kids who were left behind were basically just treading water,” he said, adding, “To my way of thinking, it was just not a good situation.”
The constitutionality of school closures on religious holidays depends on the motivation behind them, according to Marc Stern, co-director of the American Jewish Congress’ legal department.
“If it’s motivated by a desire to observe or mark respect for a [religious] holiday, then it’s unconstitutional,” he said. “If it’s motivated by the fact that so many people are going to be gone, then it’s fine.”
Armstrong, for his part, said the decision came down to “a simple matter of numbers,” adding, “I am confident that I made my recommendation for the right reasons.”
However, Raymond Vasvari, legal director for the ACLU of Ohio, said the school district is “expressly favoring” Judaism.
He said the decision contradicts a “religion-neutral” district policy adopted in 1995 stating that schools would close only when absences were anticipated to exceed 21.5 percent of the student population, according to Vasvari.
That, he said, “suggests to us that there isn’t a secular purpose here but it’s closing out of respect or deference for the holiday.”
Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs called the lawsuit “clearly misguided,” and said the district’s decision appeared to be an “appropriate accommodation of the students’ religious needs.”
The district’s policy “cannot properly be interpreted as promoting or endorsing religion,” added Joel Ratner, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Ohio office.
“Like many school districts across the country, the Sycamore district has rightfully determined that closing schools on these days makes administrative sense in light of the substantial number of students who will be absent.”