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Outcry over Good Friday is a step back for tolerance

By ERNEST HOOPER
Published November 8, 2005


The outcry over the Hillsborough School Board's decision to no longer denote Good Friday as a holiday has left me puzzled.

The decision was a result of Muslims requesting that a Muslim holiday be recognized just like the school district recognizes Good Friday for Christians and Yom Kippur for Jews.

The board voted that it previously had erred in granting those religious holidays and eliminated all of them in deference to separation of church and state principles.

Tonight, the board will reconsider the issue, and Superintendent MaryEllen Elia is recommending a return to the status quo because the issue has become "distracting."

Much of the outcry has been spearheaded by County Commissioner Brian Blair, but what's fueling it?

I ask because I have never seen our community commemorate Good Friday as a major holiday. Don't get me wrong. I recognize that it's a time for Christians to reflect on the sacrifice that Jesus Christ made by dying on the cross.

But does it absolutely require that kids not attend school?

Good Friday, by the way, is not one of the six days of holy obligation that requires Catholics to attend Mass. Most Catholic and Christian churches hold some type of service on Good Friday, but they are typically after school hours. Why? Because most people, including city and county employees, work on Good Friday.

If it's so important, why hasn't Blair called for the county to make it a holiday?

As a whole, Good Friday appears to be much like any other day. Stores are open, mail is delivered and garbage is collected. If there is a notable difference, it might be longer waits for dinner at Red Lobster.

As a Catholic, I was taught to reflect upon Christ's sacrifice at 3 p.m. on Good Friday, the approximate time theologians believe he died on the cross.

If you go to the mall at 3 p.m. on a Good Friday, you will find a lot of people reflecting on last-minute Easter shopping. Even Chick-fil-A, which is closed every Sunday in part because of its founder's Christian beliefs, is open on Good Friday.

From what I have seen, Jews seem to have far greater reverence for Yom Kippur, another day that was eliminated from the school calendar. They seem to have more reason to be upset.

And Christians would have reason to be upset too, if we were talking about Christmas or Easter, but Good Friday? In Pinellas County, they have been going to school on Good Friday for several years and no one has burned down the school district office.

So is the anger really about Christian kids having to attend school on a reverent holiday? After all, the school district already has stated there would be no penalty if students chose not to attend on that day.

No, the outrage is more a backlash against Muslims than a deep need to have kids out of school on Good Friday.

Blair says eliminating the holidays is a slap at the Judeo-Christian principles this country was founded upon, but MTV and BET are doing more to erode those principles than this decision. And Blair's whole framing of the argument is off base.

A number of historical documents suggest our Founding Fathers did not want government solely rooted in "Christian principles," as Blair suggests. If the words of the Constitution and the First Amendment are not enough, consider what's written in the Treaty of Tripoli, unanimously ratified by Congress in 1797.

The Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion .

Now, some 200 years later, it's just as important for government to represent all faiths. Maybe it's even more important given that divisiveness seems to be ruling the day. The School Board is right to adhere to separation of church and state principles, but I wish there was something it could do to send a message of inclusion to people of all faiths.

If the district gives students a day off to go to the Florida State Fair (Strawberry Festival for East Hillsborough schools), can't it find a way to make Muslims feel included?

Creating a "World Religion Day" to honor sacred days for any faith might offer a good compromise and, if coupled with a short curriculum, it could teach students the importance of respecting the beliefs of others.

Certainly Blair and his supporters could use that lesson.

That's all I'm saying.

--Ernest Hooper can be reached at 813 226-3406 or Hooper@sptimes.com

[Last modified November 8, 2005, 02:15:36]


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