(WNS) -- Administrators at New York's Stony Brook University ignited a firestorm of debate last month when they announced the school would no longer give students the day off for Good Friday, Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah.
Critics said the change, enacted in the name of diversity, trampled students' religious freedom. But few public universities recognize religious holidays any more, and school administrators say canceling class only for some observances isn't fair to students of other faiths.
Since Stony Brook's founding in 1957, the school's calendar has included class-free days for the three important Jewish and Christian holidays. Traditionally, the school tried to schedule spring break during the week that includes both Passover and Easter. But because the holidays fell in late April last year, students complained their week-long vacation came too close to the end of the school year, leaving them less time than usual to prepare for final exams.
Administrators cited the scheduling conflict as the primary reason for dropping the holidays from the calendar but acknowledged concerns about religious equality and diversity played a role in the decision. In a statement posted to the school's website on March 22, administrators said that since they couldn't cancel classes for every religious holiday, they wouldn't cancel them for any.
"Since closing classes for all religious holidays is not possible, it was decided that we should adopt an approach that is implemented by almost every major public university throughout the United States," the statement said.
A random sampling of school calendars shows that students at several public colleges, including the University of Texas, Alabama State University, the University of North Carolina, the University of California, Northwestern University and the University of Florida will not get a break from classes for Good Friday later this week.
Of the 29 four-year colleges that belong to the State University of New York system, including Stony Brook, only 22 cancel class for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, according to administrators.
Although Stony Brook's Jewish and Christian students will not get holidays off next year, administrators say they will not be punished for skipping class for observances. They also won't have to worry about sacrificing their grades. Administrators have instructed professors not to schedule any exams or major assignments on any of the major religious holidays.
"This allows each of our students to exercise their religious choices but does not compel other students to miss classes," the school's official statement said.
But Rabbi Joseph Topek from Hillel, a campus Jewish organization, worries the new calendar will force students and staff to choose between faith and class: "[We] are very concerned that this policy will result in large numbers of faculty and staff being unable to teach classes on major holidays and large numbers of students will miss important course work," he wrote on his blog.
Because of its large Jewish community, New York schools are more likely to cancel classes for Jewish holidays. All New York City public schools closed this year for Rosh Hashanah, on Sept. 29 and 30, and scheduled spring break to cover Passover and Good Friday. Next year, schools will close for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which both fall during the week.
Stony Brook's critics also took to other social media sites to bemoan the new calendar policy, peppering the school's Facebook page with comments. John Weeks accused administrators of stepping on religious liberty in the name of fairness: "You've found a way to offend every possible faith on your campus. What a shining example of academic freedom and independence taking precedence over ... oh wait, I guess those those words freedom and independence are only relevant as you decide. What a sad state of affairs!"
But Ed Rodriguez called the policy a "well-thought-out plan" that will prepare students for the realities of the working world, where few companies shut down for any religious holiday other than Christmas: "I am impressed that Stony Brook has placed its educational environment that much closer to the workplace that students will encounter when they enter the 'real world.'"
c. 2012 WORLD News Service. Used with permission.
Publication date: April 10, 2012