Thursday, November 13, 2014

In Praise of the Grinch

The Montgomery County Public School system -- of which I am a proud graduate -- recently decided to stop including religious labels for days off from school. So instead of Christmas Break, we have Winter Break; instead of getting Yom Kippur off, it's just "no school." The decision was made following requests from Muslim students and parents who wanted one of their holidays to be recognized equivalent to how Christmas, Easter, Rosh Hashanah, etc., were. Originally, the plan was apparently just to strip the Jewish holidays of their identification, an amendment instead removed all such religious designations.

I must be the only person outside the school board itself who agrees with this decision. Everybody is unhappy. Conservatives are blaring with their usual war on Christmas schtick. Jezebel blares out a headline "School District Removes Christmas From Calendar to Spite Muslims."

I've long been dismissive of people whose faiths requires government-sponsored training wheels to remain viable. It is one thing when we're talking about genuine religious accommodations -- something I still support even as Hobby Lobby did terrible damage to the concept -- that take away material barriers to one's religious observance. It's another thing entirely to act as if your faith will wilt away unless some official government body gives it appropriate symbolic representation.

Hence, I take a very different conclusion from what Eugene Kontorovich calls "the Menorah Principle" -- that once one minority religious group gets equal religious recognition on par with that enjoyed by the majority faith, all will want it. It is alienating for some religious groups -- but not one's own -- to be given public and official recognition. And I agree that this demonstrates the unworkability of this form of pluralism; it would be impossible to provide actual "equal" recognition to every single faith group in the immensely diverse United States. Kontorovich says that therefore "the only obvious place to draw [the line] is at Christianity." I say that this demonstrates that government is a body particularly ill-suited to "recognizing" religion, and should get out of the game.

The Board justified its decision on the grounds that the days it gives off aren't meant to affirm any particular religious observance, but rather are reflective of days where lots of students and staff are absent anyway. Montgomery County has a disproportionate number of Jewish students who miss school on the high holidays. Perhaps more importantly, they have a high number of Jewish teachers who also miss school, such that the district couldn't effectively staff its classrooms if it didn't declare a holiday that day. That's an entirely reasonable basis for deciding when to close schools. It also in no way requires that the district officially declare that it is closing for "Yom Kippur" (or "Christmas", or whatever).

MCPS isn't "intensifying the contradictions" of religious pluralism, it's resolving them. They made the right call here, and I genuinely fail to see the basis for the backlash they're experiencing.

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