In early March, Mayor Bill de Blasio made New York City the first big city in the United States to close its schools in observance two Muslim holidays, following suit of several smaller towns across the country.
The two days happen to be the most important and meaningful in the faith. Muslim leaders in NYC have been lobbying for this legislation for years and their hard work has finally paid off. This is a great win for Muslims in New York. In a city that already recognizes many Jewish and Christian holidays, this marks a stride toward fairness. Three of the world’s, and New York’s, most popular religions are finally accounted for and recognized.
Here is where the trouble lies. If the city is trying to be fair, why would its politicians stop here? There are hundreds of religions in the world. What is to stop the next most popular religious group in the city to advocate for their holidays to be recognized?
Carmen Farina, the City school Chancellor, said “this new addition will also enable a teachable moment in the classroom for our students to learn about religious tolerance and the societal contributions of various cultures.” While it is true that this step is a huge step forward for religious and cross cultural awareness, Farina, whether she intends to or not, is making it apparent that there are only three religions that matter to the New York City Department of Education. This is a problem.
Say what you want about Stony Brook University, but when it comes to dealing with diversity, our university does it right. Stony Brook, according to study done in 2009, is more than a quarter Catholic and more than a tenth Jewish and Muslim. Still, the school does not cancel classes on any major holidays (with the exception of those holidays that fall during breaks). This is the way it should be. There is no reason for church and state to mix; it just creates an environment of contempt and rivalry between religious groups.
You might say SBU is disrespecting religions by not observing important holidays. Stony Brook’s website says, “we have always believed that religious observance is and must always be a personal choice, not an institutional mandate” and “if we were to cancel classes for all of these religious holidays, it would be impossible to preserve our academic mission.” This may seem like a lack of respect toward those observing their religion, but in reality, the university is showing its deep-rooted dedication to education. It is the only way to keep everyone on the same playing field.
Stony Brook, despite its strong stance on holidays, does not by any means discourage religious involvement. There is Mass on campus every weekend, salat on Fridays, Kosher and Halal foods offered every day and Holi celebrations annually. The school supports these occurrences and embraces the beauty of its diversity.
While NYC politicians have made an extremely powerful statement by passing the legislation to close schools for Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, paving the way for religious understanding and tolerance throughout the city, those politicians have further marginalized people of the faiths that the city does not recognize and have set a bad precedent that will culminate when the city is faced with a controversial challenge: What justification does NYC have to say yes to Islam, Christianity and Judaism, but no to another faith?
The simple answer is that there is none.