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Inside the First Amendment - Politics and perils of closing school for religious holidays

  • Written by Charles C. Haynes

As New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio will soon discover, adding religious holidays to the school calendar is a slippery slope on the rocky terrain of public school politics.
  Earlier this year, the recently elected mayor announced plans to close schools on two Muslim holidays — Eid-Ul-Fitr (end of Ramadan) and Eid-Ul-Adha (end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca) — and the Lunar New Year, an important holiday for many Asian communities.
  Right out of the box, the Association of Indian Americans expressed great disappointment that Diwali, the festival of lights celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains in India and other South Asian countries, didn’t make the list.
  Deciding who’s in and who’s out on school calendars is a complicated political and legal conundrum in a city (like many other American cities) exploding with religious and cultural diversity.
  Mayor de Blasio is drawing the line at three — the three he thinks most justified — but balks, for now, at adding others for the obvious reason that students don’t learn much if they are not in school.
  But wait. Doesn’t the First Amendment’s Establishment clause bar city officials from closing public schools on religious holidays? Yes, if the purpose is to accommodate religion. No, if the closing serves a legitimate secular or educational purpose.
  The best, and perhaps only, “secular purpose” for shutting schools on a religious holy day is when opening school doesn’t make financial or educational sense. New York City and some other school districts, for example, close on major Jewish holidays because large numbers of Jewish students and teachers will be absent.
  It’s worth noting that most Christians don’t need to push for this accommodation because Protestants baked Christian holy days into the school calendar when they founded public schools in the 19th century. Schools don’t meet on Sunday, Christmas is a national holiday, and many “spring breaks” still fall during Easter week.
  If numbers drive these decisions, where should public schools draw the line? As the population of Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and others grows in many American cities, how can school officials afford to keep adding holy days — even when the numbers are compelling?
  Some school districts have decided the best solution is to say “no” to everyone. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, schools in Hillsborough County, Florida don’t close for any religious holidays (save Christmas, which is also a “secular” holiday).
  Other school districts choose to follow the numbers. In Dearborn, Michigan, for example, where almost half of the students are Muslim, schools close on Muslim holy days.
  It could be argued that Mayor de Blasio has defensible secular reasons for expanding the school calendar to include two Muslim holy days. Although it isn’t entirely clear how many Muslim students are in NYC public schools, most estimates put the number at about 10 percent. And with Asians comprising some 15 percent of city students, closing on the Lunar New Year could also make financial and educational sense.
  But here we start down the slippery slope. New York City is also home to many Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains — and they are lobbying hard for recognition. The Diwali Coalition, an interfaith group, recently wrote the mayor arguing that the numbers favor their cause. Asian Indians make up 2.4 percent of the city’s population — and that doesn’t count thousands more of other racial and ethnic groups that also celebrate Diwali.
  As religious diversity continues to expand in all parts of America, many school and city officials may be forced to decide that Hillsborough County has landed on the only viable solution.
  But whatever schools decide about the calendar issue, they should do two things to promote fairness and uphold religious freedom:
  First, every public school should have an absentee policy that allows students to miss school on a reasonable number of religious holidays without penalty. The policy should also ensure, to the extent possible, that significant school events aren’t scheduled on major religious holy days.
  And second, every public school should teach students about religions — including religious holidays — at various times of the year. Religious literacy is critical for sustaining a free society in which people of many faiths and no faith treat one other with civility and respect.
  Religious diversity brings messy new challenges to America. But here’s the good news: The greater the diversity, the more protection for religious freedom.
  As James Madison pointed out many years ago, “For where there is such a variety of sects, there cannot be a majority of any one sect to oppress and persecute the rest.”

Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, DC 20001. Web: religiousfreedomeducation.org Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Special thoughts for those mothers who have lost their children

 

Bobs Column - The B SideOne of the toughest stories a reporter has to cover is the death of a child. At some point during the assignment, we have to call or visit the family for reaction. It’s never easy.
Each family handles media requests differently. Some appoint a family spokesperson—typically not one of the parents—to answer questions. But in some cases, mom and dad will meet with reporters to discuss the circumstances of the death. Perhaps it’s therapeutic for them to share some loving memories of their child.
Again, it’s not an easy assignment. I remember years ago sitting in the kitchen of a home in Addison talking to the parents of a girl who died in a car accident. Mom was able to answer some questions and share photos, but dad sat at her side barely able to contain himself. He held back tears and never said a word.
I wasn’t covering Oak Lawn when Megan Hurckes, the 10-year-old daughter of former village trustee Jerry Hurckes, died in an ATV accident. But offering condolences to Jerry and his wife at the wake was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. My daughter played softball with Megan. Her loss was tough on my family and much of the Oak Lawn community.
The day in 2012 that Hometown resident Kaylah Lentine, 14, died from injuries sustained after being hit by a car on Southwest Highway in Oak Lawn, I was at the site of the accident talking to people who were adding flowers to a makeshift memorial.
I spotted a woman walking down Cicero Avenue who turned out to be Lentine’s mom, Krista Wilkinson. She visited the memorial to thank everyone for their gestures of support. I was shocked to see her so soon after he daughter’s death. But she had the courage to walk to the memorial across the street from where her Kaylah was hit just to thank people. Impressive.
These recollections came to mind because Sunday is Mother’s Day, a day that most of us celebrate while honoring or remembering our mothers. But for some moms, Mother’s Day is one of the most difficult days of the year. Rebecca Tully is one of those moms.
Tully, as many of you know, is the mother of Brittany Wawrzyniak, who died in November after being ejected from a moving car near the Worth Boat launch.
I remember the first time I met Tully. I visited her home just a few days after her daughter’s death and was more than a little uneasy when I knocked on the door. Tully’s husband, Mike, and her mother, Becky, greeted me. I sat down in the living room and greeted Tully, whose face exhibited a level of grief and agony only a mother could experience.
We began to chat and I made it clear she didn’t have to answer questions she was uncomfortable with, and we could end the interview at any time.
But that never happened. Tully soldiered through the interview, answering all of my questions the best she could. Throughout our conversation, her young twins ran in and out of the room, and I couldn’t help but think about how she had to continue to be a loving mother to them despite the desperation she was feeling over the loss of Brittany.
Imagine having to cope with the pain associated with the death of a teenage daughter while having to be there for two young children who were confused, to say the least, about the loss of their big sister.
I gained huge respect and admiration for Tully that day and in the months that followed. I know she’s been at odds with the Worth Police Department over the investigation into her daughter’s death. But that’s not the focus of this column. Rather, I’m thinking about what she and other mothers in her perdictiment face each day as they try to return to some level of normalcy.
I talk to Tully each time there’s a development in the ongoing story surrounding her daughter’s death. Each time I call, I ask if she minds talking or answering questions or if there’s a better, more convenient time.
She rarely refuses a request because she’s advocating for Brittany every time she talks to the media, attends a Worth village board meeting or meets with police.
Tully will always be Brittany’s mom, and she won’t rest until she knows the details connected to her daughter’s death. She has amazing resolve, though I’ve often thought about the pain she must experience during quiet moments when she’s alone and has time to reflect on her Brittany’s short life.
Brittany was 18 years old and was in the midst of that special time of life most teenagers experience after high school. She was working, pursing a college education, looking to the future, enjoying time with friends. Suddenly, her life ended, and Tully is left behind to grieve. But she’s too resilient to simply mourn and lament Brittany’s death. That alone solves nothing. Tully understands this.
So, when you celebrate Mother’s Day on Sunday by attending a religious service, going to brunch or having mom over to the house, be sure to take a moment to think about or pray for Rebecca Tully, a loving and dedicated mom not much different that our own mothers, who is going through a tough time right now and would appreciate your support.

 

Lousy parents who treat their kids as nuisances instead of gifts hurt us all

 

  I compile the police blotter for The Reporter each week and review reports from six towns. I see a wide variety of incidents, including traffic offenses, retail theft, burglaries and drunken driving.
  But no report is more disturbing to me than “endangering the health or welfare of a child.” I don’t see them often, but when I do, the details are usually pretty disturbing.
  Bobs Column - The B SideLast week, for example, the blotter included a report about a 2-year-old boy who was riding his tricycle down the middle of a street and not wearing any pants or underwear. When police arrived, they found mom asleep on the couch in a disheveled home with dishes piled in the sink and garbage on the floor, according to reports.
  What a fantastic environment in which to raise a child. Mom speculated to police that her son got on chair in order to reach the doorknob. Imagine knowing that was a possibility and not taking steps to prevent it.
  Several months ago, the police reports included an incident about a young boy who was locked out of his apartment by his mother after the two argued. He was forced to endure the cold until he went to a neighbor for help.
  These reports are horribly disturbing. Children should be able to count on parents for the basics—food, shelter and education. Of course, mom and dad should provide a lot more than that, but in many instances, I fear, we’re talking about people who have no business being parents. Simply making sure that their children are safe is too tall an order.
  A horrible cycle is revolving in this country and unfortunately very little is said about it. Quite simply, too many children are born to moms and dads who have no business being moms and dads. There is no family structure, and a child is seen as a nuisance rather than a gift. The results affect us all.
  Often, dad is not in the picture, and a young mother is none to thrilled having a baby change the course of her life. Gone are the parties, the time with friends, the freedom that is tough to give up. Then again, why let a baby get in the way? Maybe there’s a grandmother or other family around to do the “parenting” while mom continues the life to which she was accustomed before a child became her responsibility.
  In other instances, a child becomes a pawn in a custody battle. Dad doesn’t truly want custody of his son or daughter, but he’s angry at mom and will do anything to push her buttons. That often leads to threats, orders of protection and domestic violence.
  And so it goes. The child comes up in this dreadful environment and learns early on that no is particularly invested in him. Kids aren’t stupid. They know when they’re a bother instead of a blessing. Consequently, they do poorly in school and often cause trouble to garner the attention they don’t get at home. They turn to drugs, get suspended or drop out of school, tangle with police or become parents long before they’re ready. Many never acquire the social skills needed to survive much less hold down a job or care for a family. The dysfunctional cycle continues.
  Think about any child or teenager you know that is doing well in school, hanging out with the right group of kids, taking on responsibilities, making smart choices. Chances are they come from a family with structure that emphasizes the value of education. That’s not to say good kids don’t get in trouble. It happens, but responsible families use the incident as a teaching moment. They make sure their children face consequences and don’t make the same mistake twice.
  Further, a responsible parent—even those struggling to get by—makes every effort to ensure their kids are clean, safe and have the basic necessities such as clean clothes and school supplies.
  Emphasis on family and education. It really is that simple. Sure, some sacrifices are required, but putting a child first is not that hard. The other option, of course, is to stop having kids. Quit bringing them into hideous environments they don’t deserve and putting them so far behind the eight ball that they’ll never have a real chance at a meaningful life. Children deserve the best we have to offer and in many cases they’re not getting anything close.

 

Black shoes? Selfies? Renaults? This pope acts like a regular guy

Bobs Column - The B SideI love me some Pope Francis.
How do you not like this guy? Even if you’re not a Catholic, it’s nearly impossible not to take notice of the Holy Father and appreciate his approach to the gig.
He’s only been Pope for about one year, but he’s garnered more media attention than any other Pope in my lifetime.
Pope John Paul II was a close second. He was beloved and will be canonized on Sunday along with Pope John XXIII, the pontiff when Vatican II started in the early 1960s.page-6-pope-to-go-with-bsidePope Francis
I’ll never forget the millions of people who turned out for John Paul II when he visited Chicago in 1979. An estimated 200,000 people gathered in Grant Park for the Papal Mass, and he addressed thousands from the roof of Quigley South Seminary (now St. Rita High School). It was an exciting time and a moment of pride for the city’s Polish population. John Paul II was the second Pope to visit the United States and first to come to Chicago.
But Pope Francis has redefined the role primarily by doing away with all the pomp that accompanies being the head of the Catholic Church.
The other day in St. Peter’s Square, he let two young boys board the Popemobile for a ride through St. Peter’s Square. A few months ago, the Pope was addressing a large group of families when a young boy walked onto the stage and stood at his side. No one ushered the little one away. Instead, the Pope patted the boy on the head and continued his address as the boy hugged him and spent some time sitting in his chair. It was a precious moment.
The Pope rolls in a Renault with 190,000 miles on it and lives in a small apartment in Casa Marta, a sort of guest hostel in the Vatican, rather than in the Papal Apartments of the Apostolic Palace. He’s modest in every way and people relate to that. He mingles with massive crowds in St. Peter’s Square and routinely exits his vehicle to bless the followers and kiss babies.
Those who aren’t so modest have heard the Pope’s message loud and clear. He suspended a German bishop accused of spending millions on lavish renovations to his residence. It’s the absolute wrong time for a member of the church’s hierarchy to go on spending spree. Humility is in. Extravagance is out. Pope Francis has made that clear.
Even the little things the pope has done have signaled his desire to be the everyman’s pontiff.
He kept his black shoes rather than wearing the red ones customary for the Pope. He also is foregoing the red cape popes usually wear. He continues to wear the iron-plated pectoral cross he used as archbishop, and his papal fisherman’s ring isn’t gold but gold-plated silver.
He uses Twitter and has taken “selfies.” He’s not only modest; he’s hip.
He’s also a tad self-deprecating as evidenced when he donned a red clown nose after congratulating newlyweds in St. Peter’s Square who work as volunteers for an organization that assist the sick with clown therapy.
The beauty of Francis is that we have no idea what he’ll do next and all his actions are impromptu. Nothing is staged. He’s the genuine article and he’s arrived at the right time.
A couple years ago, a Catholic lay organization ran a series of TV commercials designed to convince fallen-away Catholics to return to the Church. The commercials were effective and likely convinced some people to return to the church.
But no commercial will hold a candle to the actions of Pope Francis. He’s approach to the papacy appeals to people. Catholics my age probably recall a very different papacy. I remember Pope Paul throughout my elementary school years, and Pope Benedict led the church for eight years before stepping down last year.
Neither of them seemed to connect with the people. They were distant figures who were revered, adored, exalted. They seemed more like symbols of the church than people. Francis has redefined the role. He stands among us rather than apart from us.
Young people are the future of the church and having a pope that connects with youth is vital for the church’s future. Francis understands this.
I doubt they use the public relations/marketing term “rebranding” in Vatican City, but that’s what Francis appears to be doing and it’s working. He always looks happy. It’s as though the guy no one expected to become pope is as comfortable in the job as he is in his black shoes and old Renault.

Math teacher hopes votes add up for Oak Lawn student needing car

 

Bobs Column - The B SideTeaching is tough profession. And those who babble on about teachers not working a full day and having summers off are misinformed and ought to be quiet.
I’ve worked as a substitute teacher and while that’s not comparable to working in a school on a full-time basis, it helped me appreciate the challenges and obstacles teachers face day in, day out.
No two days are the same, there are always a handful of problematic students and the work is endless. Of course, teaching is amazingly rewarding as well. Just ask Ellen Kruger, a math teacher at Oak Lawn Community High School.
I got to know Ellen a few years ago when I wrote a story about a holiday program she sponsors that helps the needy in the Oak Lawn community.
The program is simple. Ellen identifies the needs of underprivileged families in the area and lists those needs on ornaments that decorate a Christmas tree at the school.
Students and teachers select an ornament and purchase the requested items. The items are wrapped and sent to the homes of the needy families. Simple isn’t it? Kruger takes a little extra time to identify a problem and helps solve it. Not in the job description by a long shot, but going above and beyond is her passion.
Now the veteran educator has moved on to another challenge: getting a specially equipped car for a student with disabilities.