by Pete Sheehan
Bishop William F. Murphy of Rockville Centre and other religious and political leaders are criticizing an announcement by a state university that from now on it will hold classes on major Jewish and Christian holidays.
Bishop Murphy responded to the decision by Stony Brook University, part of the State University of New York system, to hold classes on such religious holidays as Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur and have spring break fall after the seventh week of class in the semester rather than during the time of Holy Week, Easter and Passover.
“The proposed changes are misguided and overtly hostile to a targeted group: the Judeo-Christian tradition and all those members of the administration, faculty, staff and student body who are proud to be part of this tradition,” Bishop Murphy said.
“Very simply, the changes, if adopted, will force these persons to choose between practice of their faith and taking examinations, attending/ teaching classes or partaking in the other campus duties, responsibilities and activities,” the bishop continued.
“Sadly, the university would be sacrificing the long-recognized and long-standing freedom of Christians and Jews to practice their religion without fear of negative consequences,” Bishop Murphy said, “and all for the sake of efficiency, logic and a specious inclusiveness.”
Nine state senators from Long Island, including Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, sent a letter March 21 to Samuel Stanley, president of Stony Brook, saying the university’s decision was reached without the wide consultation used in the past for academic calendars.
“We are hopeful that you will re-examine your process and implement a policy that takes into consideration the best interests of students and faculty across your campus,” the letter said.
According to a statement posted on the university website, Stony Brook historically has canceled classes for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur and often – though not uniformly – planned spring break to coincide with Passover and Easter.
“Since these holidays do not fall on the same date every year, spring break was unpredictable,” the statement said. “Last spring, students complained that they did not have enough time to prepare for exams because spring break fell so close to the end of the semester.”
Those complaints prompted the university to look at an alternative calendar to serve students’ academic needs, “so at their request we changed our calendar,” it said.
According to the statement, the new policy reflects the growing diversity of the student body, which includes about as many Muslim as Jewish students, and it treats all religions the same, similar to the calendars at other major public universities. It said the decision was presented to various university organizations and the University Council and the University Senate, which represents the entire faculty, staff and student body.
In the statement, the university said no student or faculty member would be penalized for observing religious holidays and it pledged to help the Interfaith Center accommodate any increased worship and dietary needs.
However, Frederick Walter, president of the University Senate and a professor of astronomy, said the Senate did not accept the new calendar and its members were critical of the lack of consultation.
Walter said in a statement the university’s calendar committee in the past has had wide representation – from the University Senate, the students, the Interfaith Council, as well as the registrar and other administrators – and has been “convened about every five years to generate a calendar acceptable to all parties.”
“Had the process been followed, the university could have saved a lot of grief,” Walter said.
Officials of the Interfaith Center sent a letter to Stanley, telling him that changing the calendar without consulting a calendar committee was “ill advised,” and they urged the decision be reconsidered.
It was signed by Rabbi Joseph Topek, chairman of the Interfaith Center and Jewish chaplain; Carly-Anne Gannon, a Catholic chaplain; Sanaa Nadim, Muslim chaplain; and two other Christian chaplains.
The letter noted that Stony Brook has over the past 15 years “experienced a very positive change in its reputation,” in part because of its ethnic and religious diversity and the efforts of chaplains to be “enthusiastic ambassadors for Stony Brook” and to help each student feel welcome.
“Eliminating major religious observance for this calendar will damage the university’s image and reputation,” the letter said.