The American Center for Law and Justice is urging the president of New York's Stony Brook University to reverse a decision that ends a long-standing practice of closing school in observance of major Christian and Jewish holidays.
The ACLJ calls the move "an unnecessary, ill-advised change that demonstrates hostility to members of all religious faiths."
The university decided earlier this month to no longer cancel classes for Christian and Jewish holidays in what it says is an effort to ensure that some religions aren't given special treatment.
In the past, classes have been canceled in observance of Good Friday, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur. But now Jewish and Christian students will have to choose between observing their religion and going to class.
Stony Brook says by ending a practice that "honors only some religions," it is aligning itself with other major research universities and leveling the playing field.
"We believe this provides two essential things – a sound educational calendar and at the same time an equal level of respect for all religions and faiths," said Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Charles Robbins, according to New York-based newspaper Newsday.
Once the new schedule is in place next fall, Stony Brook will have its spring break earlier than usual – at the seven-week mark of the semester, instead of during Holy Week when Christians celebrate Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter, and Jews mark Passover.
Robbins said that the university also decided to make the change because some spring breaks were coming as late as 12 weeks into the semester. He noted that this left students little time to finish regular classes and prepare for finals.
However, Jordan Sekulow, executive director of the ACLJ sees it differently.
"This schedule change demonstrates hostility toward religion and departs from the American tradition of the government accommodation of religious practices," he said. "To discard a long-standing practice of closing school in observance of religious holidays is offensive and runs afoul of the Constitution, Supreme Court precedent, and New York State law."
The Interfaith Center at Stony Brook, which includes Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Islamic and Asian Christian chaplains, are upset with the changes, and said they were never consulted by the university. The group wrote a letter of protest to university president Dr. Samuel L. Stanley Jr., calling the changes "ill-advised."
The ACLJ also sent a letter to the Stony Brook president. In their legal analysis, the law firm contends that "the terms of the new calendar and the secretive, exclusionary process used to create it, strongly signal a hostility to religious adherents."
The letter explains that this hostility is unwarranted, and is neither required nor justified by the Constitution.
"The Supreme Court has explained that 'the Constitution . . . affirmatively mandates accommodation, not merely tolerance, of all religions, and forbids hostility toward any. . . . Anything less would require the 'callous indifference' we have said was never intended by the Establishment Clause," it states.
The ACLJ urged the university president to reconsider and reject the proposed changes to the academic calendar.
"Refusing to accommodate religious observances now after many years of previously doing so strongly signals to current and prospective students and their families that Stony Brook's once welcoming approach to students of faith has changed," the letter concludes. "It is not too late to correct what appears to be an ill-advised change in SUNY Stony Brook policy."