Although my biases in this area might be impugned, it is sometimes necessary to address the arguments advanced by some in the name of freedom from religion. Some are no doubt well-meaning, but still misunderstand the sense of the First Amendment.
It is a topic that arises occasionally, and certainly will be revisited.
I have avoided discussing "freedom of religion"; my biases are easily impugned. In the interest of disclosure, I have two degrees in Biblical studies, and have been involved in various parachurch ministries including serving as Chaplain of the Christian Gamers Guild and member in Christian rock band Collision. For many of my political positions I have religious reasons, kept out of the public debate because they are only relevant to those who share my religious presuppositions. If there are not good reasons for my positions that are not religious, I have no business imposing such views on people who disagree with my beliefs.
This is more difficult when the issue is freedom of speech, association, assembly, and religion--all closely connected, and closely tied with that "other" category of "religious" belief, politics. Yet when Alfred Doblin, editorial page editor of one of New Jersey's largest in-state newspapers, The Record, claims that a proposed law is a violation of those protections, and his reasoning is flawed, it becomes necessary to address the matter.
At issue is a bill popular in the House of Representatives, related to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA. Those laws supervise disaster relief, from the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center to the storm damage of Hurricane Sandy. Federal money can in such situations rebuild homes, businesses, infrastructure, schools, almost anything damaged or destroyed by the disaster--but not religious institutions or places of worship. The bill addresses that, stating that federal money can rebuild such structures--churches, but also mosques, synagogues, temples, and the facilities of religious organizations.
Doblin objects. He says, "Using federal money to build a religious sanctuary of any faith is exactly what the Founding Fathers wanted to prevent." He objects to his tax money funding reconstruction of facilities of religious groups whose positions he finds offensive, and rightly states that government could not use any test of the beliefs of those groups to refuse funding.
Although we are sympathetic to Doblin's position, it won't withstand scrutiny.
First, this is not about building religious buildings; it is about insuring against damage of such magnitude. In disasters, insurance companies default, unable to cover the costs of such "acts of God", and so government covers those losses. Rebuilding a destroyed church is not the same as building one.
Second, while it is certainly the case that the founding fathers wanted to prevent the government from building churches for specific religions, when the bill is non-discriminatory (that is, it pays for mosques and churches equally) it is not promoting a specific religion. In funding repairs to facilities of all religions, the government avoids religious bias--and it is religious bias that is at issue, the promotion of any one belief over any other.
Third, Doblin mentions that some people would prefer that federal funds not go to secular organizations that promote policies contrary to their personal religious beliefs, such as the objections to funding Planned Parenthood by those religiously opposed to abortions. Yet in such disasters, FEMA funds such "non-religious" organizations, secular institutions which take positions on what are to others essentially religious issues (at what point the "product of conception" becomes a person with inalienable rights is a religious question in its essence). To fund such institutions and not fund churches because the latter are overtly religious is to make a law concerning the establishment of religion--to exclude those whose work in the community is based on faith in God rather than faith in man's philosophies. If a bill were proposed that said that everyone below a certain income level could receive food stamps unless they were Jewish, that would obviously be a law concerning the establishment of religion; to say that every building of any purpose in a community can receive money to help repairs unless it is a religious building is to write a law biased against religion, opposing all religions that believe in and worship God and no religions that believe in and extol man.
Finally, in many cases churches are part of the solution. They often provide emergency shelter, food for the destitute and indigent, clothing and other resources. The Salvation Army is a religious organization that does a tremendous amount to help the needy, sending aid to disasters as reliably as the Red Cross. To penalize those who are helping out of religious conviction is not only discriminatory against religion, it is counter-productive in the effort to aid others. Most religious institutions have helped at least some in their communities. Refusing to help them in their time of need is to reduce their ability to help in the future.
Mr. Doblin is mistaken. FEMA is acting unconstitutionally precisely when it refuses aid to any organization in a disaster area based on religious grounds. That ought to be changed.
One of my valued correspondents forwarded an article in which a local government council requested that the ministers who opened their meetings with prayer not mention "Jesus" in those prayers, and the leader of the local ministerium, a Baptist, responded that they could not comply. There are points on both sides. "Non-sectarian" prayers are fundamentally complicated and controversial. There was an argument in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod about the ecumenical dedication ceremony of the World Trade Center memorial site, because church leadership decided it would be wrong for Christians to pretend other faiths were worshiping and praying to the same God, but some local pastors thought it would be insulting to those being memorialized for the church not to be represented.
The problem is why we have these prayers at all.
Ben Franklin insisted on prayers in the Continental Congress, saying "And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid?" It is thus a well-established tradition that government meetings open in prayer--but prayer to whom? It is implied in Franklin's comment, citing words of Jesus, that it is prayer to the Christian God; it is simultaneously inherent in the First Amendment that it would be unconstitutional for Christians to use government to enforce or promote Christian belief or practice.
The ministerial association in the article is correct: although it can be variously understood, the Christian is directed to pray "in Jesus' name". Even if the name is not used, the intention must be there, that the one praying is representing the interests of Jesus in the request being made. One might analogize the minister as akin to an ambassador of a foreign nation present at the meeting, contacting his sovereign and requesting that the foreign sovereign support the local government and offer any advice or assistance it can; you can't expect the ambassador not to represent his own nation or national interests, but you can ask him whether his nation can lend its support to ours.
King Cyrus, of the Medo-Persian empire who returned the Jews to their homeland after Babylon was conquered, held the philosophy that all peoples should be permitted to worship their own gods, as long as they all in ways appropriate to their faiths made prayers on his behalf. Part of his proclamation for the Jews is preserved, and it sounds very like he genuinely believed in the God of Israel; but it seems he wrote similar proclamations for other nations being returned to their homelands. Whether he believed equally in all gods, or hoped that one of them was real, or was simply placating the religions of his subjects, is a guess.
Ultimately public prayer is recognizing the roots of the country as a non-denominational Christian nation (the Deism of many was a Judeo-Christian heresy--the God who was thought to be uninvolved in the universe was viewed as its creator in a transcendent relationship). There is no way, really, to have any clergyman of any faith offer a prayer that is non-sectarian. Either we accept that this is so and perhaps rotate the faiths so represented (a Rabbi offering the prayer one week and an Imam the next), or we eliminate such prayers, perhaps substituting them with the announcement that there will be sixty seconds in which every individual present is asked to pray for blessings on the meeting in accordance with his own faith, or in lieu of that to be silent out of courtesy toward those who do.
The amorphous god of everyone does not really exist; no minister can honestly offer prayer to a god who does not exist, nor ask such a god to be present and bless a secular government meeting. To ask one to do so is fundamentally to misunderstand God, the role of the minister, and the real purpose of such a prayer.
A reader called my attention to an article written last week, and asked that I respond to it. Frankly, I found the article boring--a predictable diatribe by a self-described feminist, apparently an atheist and leftist half of whose oeuvre seems to be attacks on those who claim to be Christians who are Republicans. I hate to call attention to it. The heart of the message was that politicians claiming to be Christian were shutting down foodstamp programs, claiming it was the "Christian" thing to do, and that she, in her enlightened atheism, has a better understanding of what the "Christian" approach should be than these politicians. That is the more remarkable, really, when she tips her hand to suggest that she has bought the intellectually foolish notion that the New Testament documents are unreliable accounts of events (I am surprised at how many supposedly intelligent people are completely unaware of the evidence supporting these), and describes Jesus as a "mythological character".
We will give her the benefit of the doubt, that when she referred to Jesus as a "mythological character", she meant it in the same sense that one might use to describe Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte, or Elvis Presley: someone around whom stories grow, who to many people is more an image than a person, an idea. (Denying the reliability of the accounts is perhaps forgivable; denying the existence of the historic person entirely is nonsense.) The charge is no doubt true for many, that Jesus stands for what they themselves believe to be right, as He is to them more an image than a teacher; and that they confuse for His teaching other "American" values they have adopted. He certainly never taught that America was a Christian nation, or that wealth was an indicator of God's favor.
On the other hand, I have trouble with someone avowedly not Christian telling me either what Christians believe or how we ought to act.
Do I agree that many conservatives who are Christians confuse their political opinions with the teachings of their faith? Certainly; and I do not agree with everything claimed as a "Christian" policy. Certainly I agree that Jesus fed the hungry and taught us to do likewise, and indeed the Church has been a leader in feeding the hungry throughout the world. World Vision, Feed the Hungry, and The Salvation Army are just some of the most visible Evangelical Christian relief organizations working to bring food, water, and assistance to people in need here and abroad. It is a mandate.
However, food stamps are a more complicated question. By and large they are not wealthy people helping poor people, but wealthy and powerful people forcing poorer people to help yet poorer people. It is one thing if you decide you are going to give your money to feed the poor; it is quite another if you decide you are going to do this with my money. As Linus Van Pelt said, "I want to be a philanthropist with somebody else's money," and that is what government welfare programs are doing. There is no "charity", in its original sense, in such giving, and the fact that so many of these programs are now called "entitlements", as if there were some merit in being poor that earned the right to demand the kindness of the wealthy, only underscores this.
For the record, on balance I favor government assistance programs. They are imperfect, and they are abused, but there are people who genuinely need help, either because life has been hard on them or because they have been ill-equipped for it. Yet I do not see it as an obviously "Christian" position, either for or against, and I cannot (as a trained theological scholar and Bible teacher) fault those who would have concluded that forced charity is not a biblical principle. On the other hand, relying on the generosity of those who have more leads to the problem faced by the beggar in Fiddler on the roof: "So, if you had a bad week, why should I suffer?" When times are hard for everyone, they are hardest on those most dependent on the kindness of others.
As to allowing our religious beliefs to influence our politics, it is something even atheists do, and it is neither possible nor desireable to eliminate it. It would be better if only intelligent thoughtful people participated in the political process; but that boat has sailed, and now everyone gets a say, even those who cannot see beyond their own irrationally-embraced beliefs (whether those of conservative morality or those of liberal feminism or of any other stripe of beliefs). I will vote my conscience as informed by my religion, and attempt to help others better understand what that religion teaches. It will probably help if those who do not believe our faith do not alienate us by pretending to know what we should believe better than we do. Such attacks cause otherwise sensible people to become defensive and reactionary, leading to irrational decisions on both sides rather than rational discussion and mutual understanding.
If you were an employee at a fast food restaurant and you came to work wearing a T-shirt extolling the food of one of your competitors, your employer would be justified in sending you home to change. Your free speech does not extend so far as to allow you to advertise the competition on the job.
It is less clear whether you should be permitted to make other kinds of statements. If you wear a button or shirt promoting a political party or a political issue, there would be a debate over whether your employer is permitted to forbid such expression. It might hinge on whether your job involved interaction with the public--an employee who works in a file room probably would be permitted to wear an expression of his opinion among other employees, but might be forbidden to do so in a context in which it might appear that he was representing the company. Yet the issue becomes blurry. Can you wear, as a fast food employee, a shirt that promotes your favorite video game, or a sports team, or your school? The question of the school is also significant, because many students wear class rings, which are nothing other than a way of identifying with and so promoting the alma mater.
There is then the question of religious markers. Many Christians wear crosses or crucifixes; for some it is a serious expression of faith, while for others it is just jewelry. Similarly with St. Christopher's medals, some believe in an almost magical protection confered by the object while others just wear it because it was given to them by a beloved friend or family member. For most Christians, these are optional, even if they have strong feelings about them.
That, though, is not true of all people of all faiths. Orthodox and Hasidic Jews do not leave the house with the head uncovered, and many wear yarmulkes for that purpose, clearly marking them as Jewish. Muslims similarly are required to wear head coverings--traditionally the taqiyah for men and the hijab for women. It is not so much a statement of their faith as the practice of it, that is, the fact that people are recognized as Jewish or Islamic based on their dress is a secondary effect of their adherence to the rules of their faith.
The debate is raging north of here in Quebec, as the government has proposed a bill that would forbid government employees from wearing any "ostentatious" symbols of religion while performing their government jobs, including veils, taqiyahs, yarmulkes, hijabs, large crosses, and others. The supporting argument is that Quebec's government is secular and should not be seen as promoting religion of any type. The argument against it is that it is a violation of the freedom of government employees to practice their own religions and their right to free speech.
Nor is the issue limited to Canada. A federal judge in San Francisco recently ruled that Abercrombie and Fitch unlawfully fired a female employee for wearing a hijab at work. The company argued that all employees are effectively models of the company's image when they are in the retail areas of the store, and since the employee sometimes left the stockroom to restock shelves she could not wear the headscarf at work. Despite the fact that the employee had agreed to the dress policy when she was hired, the court ruled that the company's policy was discrimatory and would have to be revised.
There is some logic in the concept that an employer, whether private or government, has some say in what you are permitted to promote while working. Abercrombie might well object to employees working in clothing clearly marked Aeropostale. None of us wants the clerk at motor vehicles to tell us why we should become Mormons or Jehovah's Witnesses. There is a line; it happens, unfortunately, to be a nebulous and ill-defined line. Yet if we are to define it, we must do so in a fashion that respects the rights of everyone to practice his religion and express his opinions, while at the same time preventing such expressions from appearing to represent the opinions of someone else.
The American Family Association (AFA) has called for a boycott against Radio Shack during the holiday selling season.
In the interest of disclosure, I have spent a great deal of time in Radio Shack stores since high school. I built and repaired musical equipment including speaker cabinets from parts off the shelf, and while the selection is not what it was it is still the place to go for wire, jacks, cables, fuses, components, and the other paraphernalia that the electronics home hobbyist needs. Of course, there are no longer many electronics home hobbyists (I hardly qualify myself anymore), so they have shifted their focus more toward consumer electronics. WalMart and Best Buy probably are not worried about the competition there, but there are quite a few items in the store I would love to find in my oversized stocking.
It may also matter that one of my sons works for a Radio Shack franchise--and that is an aspect of the situation that has to be considered, that with Radio Shack there are company stores and franchise stores, and they are not the same.
The AFA's complaint is that Radio Shack, nationally, refuses to mention "Christmas" in any of its materials or advertising. It refers to the holidays, but avoids being religiously specific. The AFA thinks that all of this "holiday" spending is attributable to the Christian celebration of "Christmas", and that if Radio Shack is unwilling to say so then Christians should not patronize Radio Shack for their Christmas gifts. Yet, is that the Christian thing to do?
I worked one high school winter for a privately-owned pharmacy. The owners generally wished their customers a happy holiday, and sent holiday greeting cards to many. No one ever wished them a merry Christmas, although some who knew proprietors Joe and Saul would wish them a happy Chanukkah. I have had quite a few Jewish friends over the years (difficult to avoid in the New York metropolitan area), and eventually I learned the appropriate Hebrew greetings for at least a few of their holidays. It would be rude to wish a Merry Christmas to someone you knew was Jewish. It may even be rude to assume someone is Christian.
Besides, we can say without qualification that "Radio Shack" is not a Christian. The AFA might like to believe otherwise, but no corporations are themselves Christians, nor even Christian. They are corporations, and they have no souls. This or that one might have been formed by Christians, and/or with objectives the founders consider to be Christian. However, they exist as vehicles for conducting business, to make money for large numbers of investors who own small portions of them. To expect them to be "Christian" is silly. You might as well expect your dog to be Christian. We might reasonably hope that corporations would act in ways that we call "Christian", and indeed if Radio Shack, across the board, was found to be treating customers (or employees or suppliers) unethically or immorally, Christians would have reason to boycott. What, though, is the point of insisting that Radio Shack offend all its non-Christian customers by attaching a Christian label to its products? What does it get?
Baptist theologian Thomas Helwys gave us the doctrine that if Jesus Christ was the only mediator between God and man, the King could not usurp that position by dictating the religious beliefs of his subjects. Although King James jailed him for writing that, it is the foundation of our concepts of freedom of religion. I do not know how many Radio Shack stockholders are Jewish, but is it right for Christians to demand that they, through their employees, promote our holy day in their sales papers? We Christians, on other fronts, are demanding that our religious beliefs be respected, such as in regard to health insurance. On what basis can we argue that people who are not Christians should promote our religion? Let Radio Shack sell its goods to those who celebrate any holiday, whether Chanukkah, Kwanzaa, Mummer's Day, Saturnalia, Yule, or any of the dozens of other midwinter holidays including Christmas, and let us not dictate their conscience in what to call their sales (a particularly anti-Baptist attitude) as we insist that they not dictate ours.
This country has been through several significant "revivals", times when Christianity was ascendant sometimes to the point that there was little work for law enforcement. None of those had its roots in Christians trying to force others to pretend to be Christians; all sprang from Christians recognizing our own faults and failures in prayerful confession to God. Nothing in the Christian faith calls us to press anyone to act as if he were Christian. Getting Radio Shack to include the word "Christmas" in its advertising is a worthless victory. Boycotting stores struggling for survival already in a high-competition market and so putting people (some of them, at least, Christians) out of work and in debt is not going to win any converts to the faith, either. I'm sure the AFA means well, but perhaps they should think a bit more about what it is they really need to achieve.
I realized that my normal article publication schedule had me posting an article on Christmas Eve, and I considered perhaps simply saying "Merry Christmas" to my readers. But then, recalling the recent discussion of the Radio Shack boycott, it occurred to me that I do not have any clear notion of the religious spectrum of my readership. Some I know to be Christians, but some are indifferent to religion and some hold to other faiths. Would some of my readers be offended were I to offer specifically Christmas greetings on Christmas eve, given that I have undoubtedly missed the chance to give similar greetings on other holidays? I can offer the excuse that not being of those faiths I was not aware of the dates of those holidays in advance, and support it with the observation that I am not publishing a special article specifically on Christmas Eve, but a regular Tuesday article that happens to fall on what for many of my readers is a special holiday.
Should I perhaps instead simply use this time to wish everyone a happy holiday, whatever yours is and whenever celebrated, and perhaps apologize to those for whom no days are holy? But again, my mind comes back to that Radio Shack boycott, and I do not wish to offend my Christian readers who may well be the majority of my perhaps meager readership (although as to that, I have no clear way to know). One expects the generic greeting to be the safer choice, but in today's polarized political world....
A story is told of a reporter during the (American) Civil War who wanted to get the real story of the war. To protect himself, he donned Confederate grey pants and a Union blue jacket. He was found dead the next day, shot through the jacket and the pants. In times of division, there is no safe quarter. That I cannot offer general holiday greetings without offending some is perhaps worse than that I cannot offer specific holiday greetings without offending others. The separation of church and state I can understand; the separation of church and life is something I have opposed for decades.
The publishers of TheExaminer will not have a policy on this. They do their best to attract good writing talent and then, perhaps very wisely, allow us to write what we think appropriate to our audiences. Whatever I do, it is only you, the reader, who will care.
Let me then wish a Merry Christmas to all who are celebrating that holy day this year, and to everyone else a joyous holiday season, and to all the promise to be back on New Year's Eve with another article.
It happens not to be my birthday this week; I am nearly half a year from that. It is likely that it is not your birthday, whoever you are reading this, although there is a chance that this will find some of you on your birthdays. It is only that the whole holiday greetings issue, which we considered in connection with The Radio Shack Boycott and then revisited with our Christmas Eve article Holiday Greetings and even swiped briefly last week The New Year, continues to bother me. Why should it offend anyone if I do, or do not, say "Merry Christmas", or "Happy Holidays", or indeed "Happy Chanukkah" or "Auspicious Yule" or any other holiday greeting to persons who might or might not celebrate the same? If I am wishing you well in connection with a day I celebrate, or you celebrate, or someone we know or do not know celebrates, I am wishing you well. I could wish that you have a happy day on my birthday, and be perfectly sincere in wishing you a happy day, despite the fact that you do not know when my birthday is and there is not likely to be a party so you are unlikely to be invited. Why should it offend you for me to wish you a happy day on Christmas, by name, if it is my sincere wish? Similarly, would it offend you for me to wish you a happy day on what happened to be your birthday, I in my ignorance unaware that I failed to say so?
I have a relative whose birthday happens to fall on St. Patrick's Day. It is celebrated every year, the Irish managing to make more of their holiday for more people than I think the perhaps more numerous Mexicans manage to do on Cinco de Mayo (which as it happens is also the birthday of someone in my family). No one complains at being wished a happy St. Patrick's Day, even though it is not merely a Catholic holiday but a politically divisive one in Ireland: it specifically identifies Ireland as a predominantly Roman Catholic country, against the English Protestantism of the upper class and British royalty. Thus it is religious and political, and controversial on both counts. Yet on that day, people ignore the fact that they are not Irish and not Catholic, and wish each other a happy holiday by its name, without stirring any trouble. In New York, they even have a parade, and televise it.
If you wish to wish me a happy Martin Luther King Day, that's fine with me. I am not black; I do not know that it matters, as the contributions made by the Reverend Doctor improved the entire country and so touched all of us. Even so, if you want to wish me a happy Birthington's Washday or Bluebeard's Wedding Anniversary or National Hangover Day, I am not going to object to being so blessed. I don't happen to celebrate any of those holidays, but if it is an important day for you, that makes it an important day.
So whenever your birthday falls, may it be a happy one, and may you have good days on all the holidays and all the ordinary days as well, and may we all just cool down a bit and stop worrying about whether the other person celebrates the same days we do. Not all Christians celebrate Christmas, either because they prefer celebrating Epiphany or because they perceive it as a thinly-veiled celebration of Saturnalia. We do not all mark the same date as Easter. If even among ourselves we cannot agree on our holidays, and cannot trouble ourselves to learn all the holidays of all the other faiths in our highly pluralist society, we ought not to take offense at others, whether they wish us merry Christmas, happy holidays, or a very happy unbirthday.
There is a modern attitude that whatever the majority believes must be right. It is clearly modern--John Calvin was able to ask rhetorically when the better course was ever favored by the greater number, confident that his readers would agree that this was never the case. We might suppose it to be the democratic principle upon which our nation was founded, but in actuality our democracy began with the very undemocratic view that only educated successful people--those who had some hope of understanding the issues and some stake in preserving the country--could vote. (We still do not have universal sufferage--not long ago I read an opinion piece suggesting that children should be registered voters, their votes cast by proxy by their parents until they were old enough to exercise these themselves. The theory was that parents had greater concern for the long-term future of the country than either single persons or retirees.) Yet however it came to be, many of us believe that whatever the majority thinks is true must be right.
My brother Roy, the philosophy major, observed the absurdity of this. If it is my opinion that the majority is correct, and someone conducting a survey asks me my opinion, the only logical answer is for me to tell him to finish his survey and then inform me based on the results what my opinion actually is. To believe that what the majority believes is correct is to reach no conclusions yourself, but blindly to accept the opinions of others who do not think the majority is necessarily correct, who are willing to have an opinion apart from what the majority believes.
Yet this attitude remains, that if you do not keep pace with what the majority believes you are "out of touch". Indeed, ABC News recently published a story asserting that Evangelicals are out of touch with public opinion, that the positions and ideologies propounded by Evangelical Christian leaders are not what most people believe--as if it were the task of religious leaders to be politicians, to figure out which way the crowd is headed and run out front waving their own flags as if they were leading us there. Nineteenth century American clergyman James Freeman Clark said, "A politician thinks of the next election. A statesman, of the next generation." It is the task of true leadership to guide us where we ought to be going, and to tell us when we are going the wrong way, not to figure out where everyone wants to go and carry the handbasket.
This is not to say that the majority opinion is never correct. Rather, it is to say that an accusation that someone does not agree with the majority opinion is a foolish criticism. We need disagreement, strident discordant voices railing against the majority view. It is the way--the only way--that we find our way to the truth. We have probably all been asked at one time or another whether if all our friends were jumping off a cliff we would go with them (or some similar question), and our answer is usually no. It may be that someone sees the cliff toward which we are racing; saying that they are out of touch and do not understand the point of the race is terribly presumptive. Christians have always believed that the way that seems right to man is the way to death. Christians objected to slavery; Christians objected to dictatorial government and censorship. Were they not objecting to something in modern culture, we would know they were not doing their job. You--you who have embraced the view that what the majority thinks must be right--might disagree with what they say, but to reject it merely because it is a minority opinion is potentially as foolish as following everyone else over the edge of the cliff.
Christians in the Rockville, Maryland area are upset; they believe that their First Amendment right to religious freedom is being impinged by the local school board. The board announced that there would no longer be a "Christmas Break", nor an "Easter Break", nor any breaks designated as closure days for religious holidays. This includes several Jewish holidays as well; the "Yom Kippur" and "Chanukkah" breaks are being removed from the calendar.
However, the board is correct. The protesters in this case have failed to understand both the First Amendment and the history of government holidays. The schools cannot legally close for religious purposes, and more to the point, they have never done so.
The immediate background is about the growing Islamic population of the Montgomery County, a major suburb of Washington, D.C. Islamic leaders noticed that this year their major holiday Eid al-Adha falls on the same day as Yom Kippur, but the school calendar indicates that there will be no school on Yom Kippur, not mentioning the Islamic holy day. Muslims petitioned to have their holidays recognized as part of the school closings calendar. Rather than agree to this, the school board removed all religious holiday references from the calendar. The school will be closed on the same dates, but now the closings will have generic secular names like "Winter Break". The Islamic community is upset at what it perceives as a slight against their religion; the Christians are upset at what they perceive as persecution against their faith. (The Jews are sufficiently accustomed to this that they probably don't care what the breaks are called.)
Ultimately, though, the schools, indeed the government, cannot make any decision based on the support or recognition of religious beliefs. They cannot close in recognition of the holy meaning of Good Friday, or Rosh Hashana, or Ramadan, or Kwanzaa. Scrooge was right: religion is a poor excuse to pick a man's pocket every twenty-fifth of December, and prior to the early twentieth century there were no government closings for religious holidays. Nor did such closings begin because the government "found religion" and realized that it ought to show God respect by closing on some days in honor of Him. Such closings began for an entirely different, entirely practical, reason.
It all happened to begin with Christmas. Heads of government departments had noticed that on the twenty-fifth of December more than half of the government work force reported themselves to be "sick", unable to work. We might debate the ethics of lying to your employer about your health in order to attend religious worship services, but there were no "personal days" and vacation was rather more difficult to schedule, and a majority of Americans at that time believed that their first obligation on Christmas Day was to be in church. Trying to run government offices on a skeleton crew was more of a challenge than was worth the effort; we would be paying workers to come accomplish nothing for a day. Yet it would be equally unfair to dock the pay of everyone who was willing to work the day simply because there were not enough people to open the offices. Thus the decision and the announcement were made, that government offices would all be closed (except for "essential services") and all government employees given the day off with pay, for the Christmas holiday--not because of respect for the religion of those who would call out sick anyway, but because of the purely practical problem of not being able to run the government with so many absent.
That was the first such holiday, and the idea spread. It was good public relations to make it appear that the government was doing this out of respect for the religious beliefs of its employees, but it was doing it solely for the practical problems of their absenteeism.
That is still the reason why the Montgomery County board gives days off for Christmas and other Christian holidays, and for Yom Kippur and other Jewish holidays: students would not come to school on those days if it were required. Major Christian holidays have been so treated for decades for this reason, and when absenteeism on Jewish holidays reached fifteen percent the school board added these to the list. Currently absenteeism on Muslim holidays is only five percent, which is the ordinary rate of absenteeism on any ordinary day. Thus there is no practical reason to close schools for those holidays at this point. With the growing Islamic population of the county, that may change in the future, and those days may be added to the calendar of school closures--but with the new policy, not under their religious names but under secular names like "November Holiday".
After all, the "Christmas Break" was never really called that because the school was honoring Christmas; it was called that because the school was recognizing the futility of trying to operate on a day when its employees and students would be absent en masse for personal religious reasons. The decision to call it "Winter Break" changes nothing of substance, as the name was merely a convenience to mark the time of the break--and the reason for the break, which was not really that this is the celebration of the birth of Christ but rather that this is a day when many people are going to skip work and school for that celebration. Closing school for the former reason would be an establishment of religion; closing it for the real reason is simply a recognition of the practical problems of competing with the important things in people's lives, their relationships with God.