Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Secular Observance of Religious Holidays

It was recently found that York University’s long-time custom of canceling classes on specific Jewish holy days is discriminatory against other faith groups. As a student at York in the early nineties, it never occurred to me that such a practice might be construed in this way. Indeed, as a member of the so-called dominant culture, which forced its Christian holidays on all other faith groups, I thought this practice a good one, given the number of Jewish staff and students at the university in those days.

Given current demographic studies of students, faculty and staff, I now understand how a practice that was meant to extend fairness has ultimately limited it. I believe that it is high time that this country abandons the practice of honouring the religious holy days of some religious groups at the expense of others. My wife is a teacher in a local school board that allows days of “religious observance” to be taken by its staff. While there is always some negotiation around what constitutes a day of “religious observance,” I believe the practice of allowing faith groups to take their own days to be a sound one and one that should be embraced by public institutions and private corporations alike. However, the problem remains that certain Christian days of observance continue to be legislated statutory holidays. I believe that no religious group should receive the privilege of government-enforced (or institution-enforced) statutory religious holidays. The fact that this anomaly continues in our society is the result of our Christian-dominated colonial heritage. It is now time that we “de-listed” Christian statutory holidays.

Statutory holidays should be days of “secular observance” in which we celebrate both our diversity and what we hold in common as a society. Statutory holidays should be an opportunity for Canadians to celebrate what it means to journey together in our diversity. They should never be an occasion for one religious group to remind another of their demographic and/or historic dominance over another. I have come to feel increasingly uncomfortable with the fact that fellow citizens of a different faith -- Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, or others -- must take a holiday on Christmas Day simply because that is the way it has always been. If we truly seek to be an inclusive society we will honour all by allowing each group to hold their religious observances with integrity, not forcing the observance of the holy days of one group upon another.

For schools, instead of a two week Christmas Break and one week March Break (often still called the “Easter Break” by many), I suggest that we offer a one week mid-term break in the middle of each of the three school terms, not explicitly tied to the religious holy days of any particular group. Inevitably, from year to year, the “breaks” will coincide with certain days of religious observance for any given group, but the should not be tied to such days.

Christians in general, and Anglicans in particular should lead the way by encouraging their employers and politicians to change the current discriminatory legislation and unfair “holiday” policies related to religious observance. Anglicans should seek to observe the most important days of our calendar, while encouraging fellow citizens to observe the most important days in their own religious traditions.

In the Canadian Anglican tradition, our Book of Alternative Services notes the following Principal Feasts of the Church Year:

Easter Day
Ascension Day
The Day of Pentecost
Trinity Sunday
All Saints’ Day
Christmas Day
The Epiphany

In addition we have two major Fast Days:

Ash Wednesday
Good Friday

I would suggest that all Anglicans consider these days as days of “religious observance” in which time is taken away from the regular tasks of the day to attend a Church service, to celebrate the mystery of our faith, prayerfully engage our Christian journey, and in the case of the two fast days, to engage in self-reflection and acts of repentance.

At the same time -- politicians and business leaders take note -- let us enable our friends of other faith groups to do the same thing according to their own traditions. Passionate engagement in our own faith tradition and tolerance of fellow Canadians of differing faith traditions will serve the building up of this great nation and give us cause to celebrate when we come together in our secular festivities.

Text copyright 2008 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves. This post may not be reproduced or redistributed, either in whole or part, without the express, written permission of the author.