More than 200 Christian students at Gilbert High School — who recently learned of peaceful protests throughout American history — decided on Friday to give their classroom lessons the practical application of staging a protest of their own. They walked out of classes to stage a rally exhorting their school district to declare Good Friday a school holiday.
That may happen in Gilbert or a handful of other East Valley districts that currently hold classes on Good Friday, but the protesting students can be reasonably assured that the reason other districts recess classes that day is related to the day’s high absenteeism and state education funding, not religion.
The Gilbert students argue that the district should acknowledge that the anniversary of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth — whom they as Christians believe is the Son of God — is at least as important as, say, Presidents’ Day.
That most East Valley districts are closed on this day each year — besides Gilbert, only Apache Junction, Cave Creek and Mesa unfied school districts held classes Friday — confuses the issue, and perhaps did in the teens’ minds.
Many districts that once were open on this day gave up and changed their calendars after large numbers of parents kept calling in their children absent. But note that districts closed on that day do not declare it as “Good Friday,” but as “district recess,” for example.
The distinction is legalistic, but it avoids the appearance of a state establishment of religion, forbidden by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, by declaring that a sacred day to one faith is to be observed by all. (Thanksgiving and Christmas each have a multitude of significant secular aspects that Good Friday lacks.) Good Friday is a day off in other districts not because officials recognize a faith-based holiday but because of a feared loss of state funding based on student attendance.
Even so, where classes are scheduled on a student’s religious day, such a student may receive permission for an excused absence. Many Jewish and Muslim students are granted such excuses on their holy days as a matter of course, and a Christian student asking for Good Friday off would be treated no differently.
The time to ask for changes to the school calendar is when the school board is devising it, not via a student walkout. In class, the Gilbert teens might have learned that past protesters took to the streets because traditional avenues of “working through the system” were closed to them. This was not the case regarding this issue.