Fine Print: Religious Holidays in Schools

As New Jersey's population grows more diverse, the holiday calendar grows more and more crowded

Synopsis: The state Board of Education each year approves a list of all religious observances that count as excused absences from school. The list for the 2011-2012 school year is up for the state board’s vote today.

What it means: The list speaks to public school’s growing recognition of the different faiths of its students — and the growing diversity of the state’s population. No new holidays were added or subtracted this year, but with 128 different holidays recognized, it’s not like there is much room on the calendar.

The process: The state education officials pick the dates by tracking the most common religious calendars, but families and others may petition the state to include specific holidays. And the list is only a minimum. Individual districts may add their own holidays.

A busy Valentine’s Week: For this week alone, there is Nirvana Day for Buddhists and Shrove Tuesday for Christians. Valentine’s Day does not count.

The most pious day: At least according to this calendar, it is April 6, 2012. That will not only be Good Friday, but also Hanuman Jayanti (Hindu), Hanuman Jayanti and Mahavir Jayanti (both Jain), Lord’s Evening Meal (Christian, Jehovah’s Witness), Passover (Philadelphia Church of God), and Theravadin New Year (Buddhist).

The details: If students miss a day for religious observance, the absence must not be held against them in terms of attendance records or missed classroom work. It must be recorded as an excused absence. At the same time, however, it may not be marked in the student’s record, which would be an unlawful religious designation.

Things never change: Any excused absence still requires a parent’s or guardian’s written permission.

The fine print at the end: “The New Jersey Department of Education has made every attempt to ensure the accuracy of the dates. The information has been verified through the use of various sources and some dates may vary due to the lunar, Gregorian and Julian calendars.”