City of Brass

One thing missing from the arguments of most poliitical opponents of Judge Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court is actual data – such as her legal written opinions from decades of serving on the bench. The SCOTUS Blog has done true yeoman’s work in going through these records and has published a number of case studies that are worth highlighting for insights. Of these, I found this case rather interesting.

[I]n Ford v. McGinnis, 352 F.3d 382 (2d Cir. 2003), Sotomayor wrote an opinion that reversed a district court decision holding that a Muslim inmate’s First Amendment rights had not been violated because the holiday feast that he was denied was not a mandatory one in Islam. Sotomayor held that the inmate’s First Amendment’s rights were violated because the feast was subjectively important to the inmate’s practice of Islam.

That seems the right decision to me, mainly because the inmate’s observance of the holiday does not infringe on anyone else. In general, religious observances should be accomodated in such situations where there is no conflict.

In contrast, however, consider the case of a school district in New Haven, CT which is considering adding two holidays in observance of Eid ul Adha and Eid ul Fitr to the school calendar. The problem with this proposal is that it starts to cut into the number of days school is in session. Accomodating the (minority) of muslim students on this compels the district to also accomodate Jewish students as well, so the number of additional holidays will need to increase. Ultimately it is simply more efficient to allow students to take some number of excused absences a year for religious observances and let them allocate it on a personal basis. That said, there is a reasonable expectation that the school itself not schedule major exams, etc on major holidays for minority-faith students either. There needs to be a balance.

This makes for a curious irony that inmates in prison have more religious “freedom” per se than do students in school (though the latter surely see themselves as akin to the former in spirit).

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