New Jersey Schools Recognize 75 Religious Holidays

September 8, 2006

Source: Star-Ledger

On September 8, 2006 the Star-Ledger reported, "To keep her perfect attendance record, Tahera Ali's 13-year-old daughter used to go to school for only a couple of hours on the Islamic Day of Ashurah, getting out just in time to attend prayers for what is a holy day of sorrow. 'We wear all black on that date, and she would have to change in the car on the way" to the mosque,' said the Bridgewater mother. This year it will be different. Using a little-known process that intertwines education and religion, Ali petitioned her district and this year the day was placed on New Jersey's approved list of religious holidays. On these days, individual students may be absent from school due to their faith, without penalty, even though it is not a districtwide holiday. 'I am so glad and thankful,' said Ali. 'My children haven't been absent since kindergarten.' Setting of the religious calendars for schools can be a complex process, with the list ever-growing as the population of New Jersey becomes more diverse. The calendar now includes six religions and counts 75 days of the school year, almost double the number from 15 years ago. This year, it runs from the Islamic Day of Ascension on Sept. 1 to a Buddhist holiday on June 26 that celebrates His Holiness the 17th Gyalawa Karmpapa's birthdate. In between are Christmas, Passover and the first day of Ramadan, as well as Buddhist and Baha'i holidays. For state officials more familiar with pedagogy than theology, it can be a challenge to sort it all out. 'Each year we get a call that such and such holiday is based on the third rising of the moon, or things like that,' said Isaac Bryant, the state's deputy education commissioner whose office handles the requests. 'It's been interesting, absolutely.' The state Board of Education finalized the list this week, adjusting the dates for holidays that change each year for Christians, Hindus and Jews alike. After all, Good Friday next spring is April 6, a week earlier than last year. Yom Kippur moves from Oct. 13 to Oct. 2. The list, lengthy as it is, is only a guideline for schools. Districts actually have the discretion to add their own days to the list as well, state officials said. By most accounts, only a small handful of students in even the most diverse districts ask for days off that aren't district holidays already."