New York’s Stony Brook University has decided to no longer cancel classes for major Christian and Jewish holidays in an effort to ensure that some religions aren’t given special treatment and to “afford equal support and equal respect to students and faculty from all faiths.”
Jewish students would be impacted on Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, Passover and Holy Week. Christian students would be impacted on Good Friday. The Christmas holiday is protected under a union contract and occurs when classes are traditionally not in session.
The university had considered allowing faculty to schedule exams on Saturday and Sunday – a time when many students attend worship services. However, that decision was tabled after reaching a compromise with students.
“As a secular university, as a state-funded university our priority must be to maximize instructional opportunities for our students,” said Charles Robbins, vice provost for undergraduate education. “First and foremost, it’s important to note that while I respect everyone’s concerns, the reality is it’s a relatively small number of people who are upset.”
Robbins told Fox News the university’s decision to stop cancelling classes for Christian and Jewish holidays offers “equal protection under the regulations to everybody and no one is getting quote, unquote, special treatment.”
Robbins, who has a background in social justice, said many religions, including the Muslims and Buddhists have never had their holidays officially recognized by the university.
“Now all segments of our population will be equally recognized,” he said. “It really is the American fair thing to do.”
However, Stonybrook University’s 24,100 undergraduate and graduate students are not as religiously diverse as the vice provost said. According to a report in The Jewish Week, 26 percent consider themselves Roman Catholic, 24 percent consider themselves other Christian, eight percent are Muslim, five percent are Jewish, and five percent are Hindu.
Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, told Fox News that the university’s board of trustees should conduct an investigation into the matter.
“The goal here is radical secularism being shoved down the throats of the people at Stony Brook,” he said.
The university’s decision led the school’s Jewish, Muslim, Protestant, Catholic and Asian Christian chaplains to write a letter encouraging them to reconsider.
“We’re not taking an adversarial position against the university administration,” Rabbi Joseph Topek told Fox News. He heads the university’s Interfaith Center and wrote the letter with “a heavy heart.”
Topek said the new policy “becomes less respectful of religious diversity instead of more respectful.”
“Rather than ‘respecting all religions equally,’ as we were told the new calendar would do, it will surely be perceived as an attack on student and faculty religious identity and observance,” the letter read. “We fear that this will be seen as making Stony Brook a less tolerant community that seeks conformity over diversity.”
But Robbins disagreed and said the new policy is anything but disrespectful. He said students may still attend and participate in their religious activities. They will also have the ability to make up any class work should they be absent. Faculty members will also be instructed not to assign exams on religious holidays.
“We’re giving more students the ability to practice their faith in any way that they see fit,” Robbins told Fox News.
Donohue also took issue with the university’s contention of religious fairness.
“There are thousands of religions but this country was founded on the Judeo-Christian ethos,” he said. “No one should be apologetic about it. It’s just a matter of giving due tribute to the heritage and the legacy of western civilization. So that argument doesn’t work either.”
A number of faculty and students are outraged over the decision.
“You really have to choose between my faith and my school work and I don’t want to be put in that position,” Aaron Gershoff told CBS News.
Norman Goodman, a professor of sociology, told The Jewish News the policy “stinks.”
“It was done without any input except from the administration – and it was done in secret. It does not take into account the variety of needs of faculty and students and it shows no respect for religion.”
Robbins said the university is undeterred.
“It’s not that we don’t recognize holidays,” he said. It’s that we don’t feel that as a secular and a state institution that we are in a position to decide which holidays to cancel classes for.”