ACLU Sues Over Ohio School District's Policy on Religious Holidays

Affiliate: ACLU of Ohio
August 25, 1999 12:00 am

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CLEVELAND — The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio today filed suit in federal court seeking to end a suburban school district’s practice of closing its schools for the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

The ACLU said in legal papers that the Sycamore School District violated its own religion-neutral policy on school closings and has not attempted to close schools on other days such as Take Your Daughter To Work Day, which has had practically the same absentee rate as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

“Public schools may close on religious holidays only if they have a religion-neutral reason for doing so,”said Gino Scarselli, Associate Legal Director for the ACLU of Ohio. “However, the overwhelming evidence in this particular case makes it clear that the district’s motivation is to unconstitutionally benefit religion.”

In its complaint, the ACLU seeks a permanent court injunction to block any religious holidays from being observed as special off days. Christmas traditionally has been incorporated into the winter vacation period at Sycamore, as at nearly all U.S. public schools.

The school district began closing its schools for the two Jewish holidays in 1998, saying that it was necessary to do so because of the high absentee rate, estimated at between 14 and 15 percent.

But in addition to violating the Constitution’s First Amendment, which prohibits the establishment of one religion above others, the action conflicted with a district’s own policy on religion neutrality. That policy, adopted in 1995, specified that schools should close only when absences were anticipated to exceed 21.5 percent of the student population.

“In the most religiously diverse country in the world, we need to be aware that closing public schools for any or all religious holidays, in the end, only fosters division among those of different faiths instead of promoting tolerance,” said Stephen R. Felson, a cooperating attorney with the ACLU of Ohio.

The case was filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio.

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