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October 14, 2015 / 1 Heshvan, 5776
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Stony Brook And Religious Holidays

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We share the dismay many have expressed over the recently announced decision by the State University of New York to abandon a longtime practice and no longer refrain from scheduling classes on major Christian and Jewish holidays. Nothing in the nature of new facts on the ground has been offered by the university to explain the controversial move, though concerns for Muslim sensitivities were apparently behind it.

And it is noteworthy that Stony Brook is the only one of the four major schools in the state university system that has withdrawn religious holidays from its academic calendar. The other three, Buffalo, Binghamton and Albany, continue the practice of not holding classes on Christian and Jewish holidays.

In explaining the change, Charles Robbins, vice provost for undergraduate education at the school, said:

As a secular university, as a state funded university, our priority must be to maximize instructional opportunities for our students. 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.

Mr. Robbins went on to tell Fox News Radio that the university’s decision to no longer cancel classes on Christian and Jewish holidays offers “equal protection under the regulations to everybody and no one is getting ‘special treatment’…. Now all segments of our population will be equally recognized. It really is the American fair thing to do.”

Sorry, but abandoning existing accommodations for many because you are not prepared to accommodate all smacks of dubious public policy at best.

As Rabbi Joseph Topek at Stony Brook’s Interfaith Center noted, “Students are going to have to go begging to their professors, ‘I will not be able to come to class.’ ” New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who has long led efforts to protect religious rights in education and the workplace, weighed in with a letter to Stony Brook president Samuel Stanley.

In pertinent part, Speaker Silver said:

I am writing to express my deep concern and disappointment over the decision by Stony Brook University to create a new academic calendar that no longer accommodates students and faculty who observe religious holidays. It is universally recognized that, traditionally, time in the school calendar has been set aside for the observance of religious holidays so as not to waste public resources due to the large number of students and faculty who would be unable to attend because of religious and family obligations. It is unacceptable to schedule classes on the holiest day of the year, such as Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah and Passover for Jewish students and Good Friday and the rest of Holy Week for Christian students.

These days have long been granted the students at Stony Brook, other SUNY schools, CUNY schools, some public school districts in Long Island and Westchester and in New York City. At Stony Brook, an excellent educational institution of which our state can be proud, granting these holidays has worked in the past…. I worry that this new policy may discourage those observe religious holidays from attending or serving on the faculty….

We are a state that celebrates our religious and ethnic diversity. By taking away these holidays, Stony Brook has created an environment that can be seen as hostile to observant students of all faiths.

We would also note an inconvenient truth: the full week of Christmas is designated as a legal holiday when no classes are scheduled.

Stony Brook should reconsider the error of its ways.

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