Today’s post is from our newest contributor, Leslie Ribovich. Leslie is beginning a dissertation at Princeton on moral education in New York City public high schools after the U.S. Supreme Court deemed devotional exercises unconstitutional. Her research interests include religion and law, women’s religious history, race and religion, and the history of education.
by Leslie Ribovich
When the Montgomery County, Maryland Board of Education removed the names of religious holidays from their academic calendar last month, the story went viral. While commentators discussed whether the decision was equitable or equal, the Board’s decision also reflected a significant aspect of the history of public education: the United States and its public schools have privileged Christian, particularly Euro-Protestant, holidays and constructions of time—not to mention Euro-Protestant understandings of pedagogy and moral formation.
Although Christmas, Easter, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur will not be listed on the Montgomery County school calendar for 2015-16, school will be out on the dates of those religious holidays. The reason for the change? Muslim community leaders wanted the calendar to list Eid al-Adha, the end of the pilgrimage to Mecca. For years they had requested that the county close school on one of two major Muslim holidays. Although the effort had not succeeded by the time the Board was deciding on the calendar for next year, Muslim community leaders encouraged the Board to list Eid al-Adha with equal billing to Yom Kippur since the two holidays will take place on the same date in 2015. In response, the Board decided it would not recognize any religious holidays on its calendar. News outlets quoted Board member Rebecca Smondrowski remarking: “‘This seems the most equitable option.’”
Muslim community leaders have questioned the Board’s rationale, using the language of equality, not equity. For instance, the Washington Post quoted Saqib Ali, a former Maryland state delegate and co-chair of the Equality for Eid Coalition: “‘By stripping the names Christmas, Easter, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, they have alienated other communities now, and we are no closer to equality.” The Muslim community leaders indicated that the Board’s decision to treat religions “equitably,” or technically the same and therefore fairly, did not match their request for equality. When Board member Smondrowski used the word “equitable” instead of “equal,” she acknowledged, deliberately or not, that the calendar change would not afford Muslims equality. In fact, Smondrowski implied that the conditions of the public school could not provide Muslims with equal rights, even as the Board said it did not want to disrespect Muslims. The most practical solution, according to the Board, was to continue with a calendar that privileged a Christian understanding of time.
An assumed Christianity, specifically an assumed Euro-Protestantism that by the 1950s was framed as “Judeo-Christianity,” has historically undergirded public school calendars. Indeed, it has done more than that: an assumed Euro-Protestant pedagogy has aimed to “civilize” “uncivilized” populations through public education—a practice that identified the “uncivilized” as inferior because of disobedience of Christian laws, appearance, phenotype, country of origin, or religious practice. Although nineteenth century public education proponents were considered progressive in their time and claimed to provide education for everyone, public schools were never as inclusive as supporters maintained they were. For instance, common school creator Horace Mann hoped to “civilize” Catholic immigrants into Euro-Protestant norms in the nineteenth century, as Tracy Fessenden has described. In this light, the Board’s decision demonstrated acceptance of the assumed Euro-Protestantism codified by the Federal government and school districts around the country. Yes, school has been closed on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah since the 1970s, but Jewish holidays were recognized because of high absenteeism, not because of substantial structural changes to the Euro-Protestantism framing of public education. Furthermore, rates of Muslim staff and student absences did not convince the Board to close school on Muslim holidays. 
Given that Muslims have frequently been targets of racial, religious, and ethnic bias in the United States, the Board’s decision invites further attention. Even if the calendar itself does not aim to teach particular Euro-Protestant values, it is helpful to remember the Euro-Protestant history of public schools as “civilizing” “uncivilized” populations when an assumed Christianity is reiterated in the public school context. From examples in my own research on the moral education of juvenile delinquents in special public schools in the 1950s, I suggest that the 2015-16 calendar decision participated in the history of U.S. public education as a “civilizing” process, with Euro-Protestant standards for what the civil looks like.
Indeed, providing Muslim students and families with equal rights in public schools would be far more difficult than even allowing them a holiday off. Even if Eid al-Adha became a school holiday, Muslim students might still have to miss school for Eid al-Fitr, the last day of Ramadan. Furthermore, Jewish students who observe the Sabbath are not able to participate in Friday night arts or athletics events. Many religious calendars do not mirror the Gregorian, Christian calendar.
Repeating familiar arguments on religion and public life, supporters have claimed that the Federal law is on their side and opponents have said that the decision does not provide anyone equality, and even that the overwhelming inequality may unite religionists of different faiths. Nevertheless, the public and media analysis in the last few weeks has taken for granted that the United States and its public schools run on a Christian calendar. In particular, the calendar change demonstrates how deviations from a Euro-Protestant norm bring the norm into relief.
In my research, I have recently been thinking about deviations from the generally Euro-Protestant norms of public education. I currently focus on students in the 1950s whom court or school authorities labeled “juvenile delinquents.” These students defied the Euro-Protestant norms of the public school by allegedly misbehaving or seeming emotionally, mentally, or physically unstable to authorities. Although the context is quite different from the recent events in Montgomery County, some approaches to preventing juvenile delinquency similarly drew on the idea that Euro-Protestantism was universal and therefore the assumed logic of the school day.
Throughout the country in the 1950s, many religious leaders, educators, and even students believed that religion could prevent delinquency. In addition to turning to religious institutions, some educators thought schools could teach moral values derived from the country’s assumed Euro-Protestantism—at this time framed as its “Judeo-Christian heritage”—to prevent delinquency. One op-ed stated: “In a time when our national morals are at a record low, when our crime and juvenile delinquency rates have become objects of shuddering horror to the rest of the world, we need more moral and spiritual values in our schools, not fewer. And you just can’t duck the fact that there are no spiritual values without God.”
Educators addressed delinquency in many ways, including through film. For instance, one New York University research project studied the impact of showing films to male students in the “600” schools, New York City (NYC) special public schools created “for children who are in conflict with themselves and at variance with and rejected by their homes, schools, and society…for such children with grave emotional and behavioral problems, for whom regular school procedures had been unsuccessful.” “600” represented the name of the schools, for example, P.S. 612. Many students in “600” schools were students with disabilities, from “broken homes,” and likely from racial and ethnic minorities, immigrant families, poverty.
The researchers began by showing the Academy Award winning 1952 short antiwar film Neighbours, which told the story of two male neighbors, played by live action actors, whose fight over a flower turned into a bloody turf war that ended with both men killing each other. Animated fence pickets that the characters had built to distinguish their territories reassembled on screen to form crosses over the men’s graves. Then the New Testament phrase “Love Thy Neighbor” appeared on the screen in many different languages, including languages in countries where Christianity was not the predominant religion, and, finally, in English. The assumption was that all cultures and religions shared the belief that everyone should love their neighbor; and therefore, they could practice that phrase and learn to stop fighting with each other.
Underlying the film was the notion that in order to really get along, everyone around the world must live by the New Testament. And, by showing the film to the “600” schools student population, the researchers aimed to reform the “600” students into moral, “civilized” young adults in accord with the ideals of the New Testament. Neighbours displayed an implicit assumption that particular people did not love their neighbors—the particular people who spoke the languages on the screen. The film was supposed to remind the people who spoke those languages, and by extension the students in the classroom where it screened, that it was their duty as participants in American public (school) life to do so.
The “600” schools’ researchers addressed students they saw as defying Christian ideals through delinquency or disturbed behavior by implying that all cultures could understand the values behind “Love They Neighbor.” There was no attempt to show the equality of all the cultures by identifying significant values to each culture; rather, the presentation of the film’s moral was more equitable. Every language could translate and grow to live by the phrase. An assumed Euro-Protestantism aimed to “civilize” students out of their deviance.
Montgomery County in 2014 and NYC “600” schools in the 1950s differ. Different places, different decades, not to mention different kinds of public schools, contribute to different contexts. But the “Love They Neighbor” message in Neighbours serves as a reminder that the context for assuming that everyone shares certain values has historically been a vehicle for “civilizing” non-rule abiding, non-Euro-Protestant populations in U.S. public schools. I do not intend to critique any of the individuals involved in the Maryland situation but rather to suggest that the choices they have made are entangled in a public school system, legal understanding, and country that have privileged Euro-Protestant conceptions of behavior, morality, and time.
I use entangled as Courtney Bender and now Winnifred Fallers Sullivan do to talk about how spirituality is entangled in history, religious institutions, and “religious experience” as a sociological category, as well as in U.S. law, where a prominent legal test on whether an activity has violated the First Amendment presumes it is possible for statutes to avoid government entanglement with religion. With religion entangled in public schools in the Bender/Sullivan understanding, the questions surrounding the school calendar are not about whether the Board should have removed the names from the calendar. Instead, I have asked what the Board’s removal of holiday names illuminated about the historical conditions of the public school. I have suggested that it underscored public education’s project of “civilizing” non-Euro-Protestant, non-rule-abiding peoples and communities. The Muslim community leaders in Montgomery request equality within the terms of this historical project.
Leslie Ribovich is in the PhD program in Religion in the Americas at Princeton University.
 Valerie Strauss, “Why a Story about a School Calendar Went Viral,” The Washington Post, November 13, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2014/11/13/why-a-story-about-a-school-calendar-went-viral/; Donna St. George, “Holidays’ Names Stricken from Next Year’s Montgomery Schools Calendar,” The Washington Post, November 11, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/christmas-stricken-from-school-calendar-after-muslims-ask-for-equal-treatment/2014/11/11/f1b789a6-6931-11e4-a31c-77759fc1eacc_story.html?tid=pm_local_pop; Donna St. George, “Muslim Leaders Seek Equal Billing with Jewish Holiday on Montgomery School Calendar,” May 18, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/muslim-leaders-seek-equal-billing-with-jewish-holiday-on-montgomery-school-calendar/2014/05/18/4b8db16a-dae6-11e3-bda1-9b46b2066796_story.html; Andrea Noble, “To Appease Muslims, School District Drops Christian, Jewish Holidays from Calendar,” The Washington Times, November 11, 2014, http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/nov/11/montgomery-county-school-board-strips-calendar-chr/.
 St. George, “Holiday Names Stricken.”
 See: Kevin Schultz, Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held Postwar America to Its Protestant Promise (New York: Oxford University Press)
 See: Tracy Fessenden, Culture and Redemption: Religion, the Secular, and American Literature (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007), 66-67.
 Noble, “To Appease Muslims.”
 On supporters and opponents: “Montgomery Co. Schools Scrap Religious Names from Calendar,” The Baltimore Sun, November 12, 2014, http://baltimore.cbslocal.com/2014/11/12/montgomery-co-strips-religion-from-school-calendar-after-muslims-ask-for-equality/; “School District’s Decision on Religious Holidays Outrages Community,” CBS News, November 14, 2014, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/maryland-school-district-takes-religious-holidays-off-calendar/. On interfaith coalitions uniting in opposition to the same educational decisions, see: Kathleen Holscher, Religious Lessons: Catholic Sisters and the Captured Schools Crisis in New Mexico (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).
The influence of agricultural demands on early public schooldays also deserves attention—but that is a different story.
 Although the district does not hold school on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, the main cited reason is because of high level of absences—an argument born of the secular purpose test in the second half of the twentieth century that Christian holidays never had to live up to. Although school is closed on these two Jewish holidays, the rest of the school calendar, as the rest of the federal calendar, is still marked by Christian understandings of time.
 David W. Barry, “Religious Values as Aid to Juvenile Delinquents,” Letter to the New York Herald Tribune, July 12, 1955.
 Max Rafferty, “Spiritual Values Stem From God; Schools Need More, Not Less,” Los Angeles Times, December 29, 1965.
 Carol Cordes Smith, “The 600 Schools,” Education 80 (1959): 215-218, 215.
 Ibid.; Smith, “Using Films in Group Guidance With Emotionally Disturbed Socially Maladjusted Boys” Exceptional Children 24 (1958): 205-209, 206.
 Neighbours, Film, directed by Norman McLaren (1952; Montreal: National Film Board of Canada), https://www.nfb.ca/film/neighbours_voisins/.
 Courtney Bender, The New Metaphysicals: Spirituality and the American Religious Imagination (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010), 5-18, 182-83; Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, A Ministry of Presence: Chaplaincy, Spiritual Care, and the Law (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2014), 9-10. On the entanglement of race, religion, and citizenship: Judith Weisenfeld, “Post-Racial America? The Tangle of Race, Religion, and Citizenship,” Religion and Politics, October 24, 2012, http://religionandpolitics.org/2012/10/24/post-racial-america-the-tangle-of-race-religion-and-citizenship/. The legal test is the Lemon test, derived from Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971), a U.S. Supreme Court case on government aid to parochial schools. One prong of the three-part test is that a statute must not produce “an excessive government entanglement with religion.”
* Image courtesy Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post.