For holy days, N.C. bends a bit

Staff WriterAugust 13, 2010 

On days when faith and school collide, Sana Khan of Raleigh has learned to compromise.

Though the UNC-Chapel Hill senior would prefer no distractions on Eid al-Fitr, a Muslim holy day marking the end of Ramadan, a lecture or exam may beckon.

"You have to weigh the pros and cons of missing class," said Khan, president of the campus Muslim Students Association. "We'll go to prayer in the morning and back to class in the afternoon."

A new state law may ease Khan's predicament. It requires all school systems, community colleges and public universities to allow students at least two excused absences each academic year for religious observances. The law standardizes an informal practice. But some administrators hope it won't create exam-week havoc.

The law attempts to ease the minds of parents who want to take their children out of class to observe holidays not recognized by school systems, said state Rep. Rick Glazier, a Cumberland County Democrat who co-sponsored the bill. Generally, parents and school leaders are able to work around religious obligations, but parents sometimes grow frustrated when educators are unwilling to accommodate them, said Glazier, a former Cumberland County school board member.

"There's no reason for any parent or child to worry about these absences," Glazier said. "It's an easy fix. "

The law sends a supportive message to families, said Sheri Strickland, president of the N.C. Association of Educators.

"I don't know it will change the number of times a child is out," Strickland said. "But it will let the child and the family know it is a very reasonable excuse for missing school."

In the Triangle, many school systems and public colleges and universities have policies excusing absences for religious observances. But they don't specify how many or say which holidays make the cut. The new law sets two observances as a minimum, but school systems and colleges can allow more, Glazier said. The law doesn't specify the observances to which it applies, and Glazier said common sense should prevail. Parents or students should notify campus officials in advance of the observance.

"It has to be a bona fide holiday; you don't get to just take the day off because you want to pray at home," Glazier said. "But we didn't try to define it."

That might be problematic, warns Ron Strauss, executive associate provost at UNC-Chapel Hill, where a committee will figure out how to put the law into practice.

"If you look at an interfaith calendar, there's hardly a day in the year that isn't a faith day for someone," Strauss said.

While the university supports the new law, Strauss said he hoped it wouldn't prompt too many absences during final exams, a weeklong stretch every fall and spring. Final exams can be difficult to reschedule, given the compressed time frame and demands on professors to issue grades quickly as the semester ends.

Numbering the days

At UNC-CH, fall semester finals run from Dec. 10 to Dec. 17. That means Catholic students who observe the Our Lady of Guadalupe feast day, Dec. 12, have a conflict. In the spring, the April 29 to May 6 exam period runs up against the Jewish holiday Yom HaSho'ah and the Baha'i holiday known as the Twelfth Day of Ridvan.Those holidays may not cause much conflict, but key Jewish holidays may, said Ari Gauss, executive director of N.C. Hillel, which serves Jewish college students. Passover and Sukkot each stretch about a week, while Rosh Hashana runs for multiple days as well, Gauss said.

"Two days may not be enough, actually," Gauss said. "But in reality, there are not a lot of real traditional students here, so they don't observe them all. And usually, professors are very accommodating."

At N.C. State University, students generally work out their holiday needs with professors case by case , registrar Louis Hunt said. Athletes and musicians tend to require more excused absences than students with religious obligations, and the university has little trouble accommodating them, Hunt added.

Public school systems have occasional holiday dust-ups when creating or changing academic calendars. In 2003, Wake County school officials considered holding classes on Good Friday but opted not to after Christian parents complained. Jewish parents also complained when the school board scheduled school on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, in order to make up a day lost to Hurricane Isabel.

Melissa Segal, mother of three Chapel Hill schoolchildren, welcomes the new law. Although she hasn't run into trouble taking her youngsters out of class for the occasional Jewish holiday, she thinks the law will make life easier for families.

Still, the missed days are a sacrifice. As children get older, the makeup work grows more arduous.

"It's always hard to miss a day, whether it's for being sick or for a religious holiday," said Segal, whose children are 8, 11 and 13 years old. "As kids get older, it does get a little bit harder because there's more work."

eric.ferreri@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4563

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