Editorial: The Constitution says treat all religions equally, so let’s do that

Annually, the District 203 Board of Education approves the calendar for the upcoming school year. Most of the district’s no-school holidays are mandated by the state, with the exception of Good Friday, a Christian holiday that falls in late March to early April each year.  While the school calendar does not specifically acknowledge Good Friday, the unexplained day off has conspicuously coincided with the holiday every year. 

Previously, Good Friday was a state-mandated public school holiday. However, giving a school day off for Good Friday was deemed unconstitutional in Metzl v. Leininger (1995). Our district having an unexplained day off on Good Friday is one example of what we believe to be an institutionalized favoring of Christianity. 

It is the opinion of the Central Times Editorial Board that the district should be more accommodating of diverse religious and cultural practices, specifically with regards to days off. The district should provide greater acknowledgment for different cultural commitments, and this sensitivity goes a long way towards allowing students to feel better understood. 

If our district is going to make strides toward helping all members of our school community feel included, we should not provide all students a day off for any particular religious holiday; doing so inevitably sends the message that one religion or holiday is more important than another. 

House Bill 169, signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker in 2021, allows students in Illinois to be absent from public school for religious reasons with parent or guardian consent. So while it’s an option for District 203 students, many are discouraged from taking a day off due to the academic ramifications and cultural insensitivity. 

Any student faces the dilemma of missing important classwork when they take a day off. Then, when a student is gone for religious reasons they are often unable to complete schoolwork due to the customs and obligations that come with the tradition, making it that much harder to make up missing assignments. Yet, when a teacher doesn’t post a daily agenda on Canvas it becomes even harder to make up work. Furthermore, several students have reported experiencing pushback from teachers when they wanted to take a day off from school due to cultural or religious reasons.

Some staff members do not understand the cultural significance of important holidays  such as Yom Kippur, Lunar New Year and Ramadan. When students take absences for these reasons, those teachers fail to be understanding of their traditions. And occasionally, teachers or staff members make comments that shame students whether they are intentional or not. Students have reported having assignments they missed for religious reasons withheld by teachers, getting no opportunity for a make-up.

This isn’t to say that strides haven’t been made in the district and school. Central librarian Cathy Gottlieb regularly sends out a cultural newsletter informing staff about various upcoming religious and cultural events. Over the years, general recognition and education about the various cultures and religions present have also become more common. However, more needs to be done.

One solution is to familiarize staff with cultural commitments and change curriculum to be more online-based. Then, add a religious/cultural absence reason on Infinite Campus in addition to the existing “general illness,” “flu-like illness” and “other absence.” By acknowledging a multitude of cultures in district language and requiring all classes to post daily agendas on Canvas will go a long way. This way, students can feel better about taking a day off for one of the most important parts of their identity. 

While it’s the student’s responsibility to reach out to their teachers, building a greater sense of mutual understanding can only help. Furthermore, it would make students feel like their cultures and religion are being acknowledged and recognized. Having the district hide the reason behind a day off school isn’t the solution—instead, being more accommodating to these diverse customs can bring a more equal experience for all.