Thursday, June 30, 2011

Observing religious holidays will come with a price in District 219 

Teachers in Niles Township High School District 219 who miss school to observe religious holidays could find their pay envelopes a bit leaner next year.

The school board discussed a proposed policy change Monday night that would no longer allow staff to take sick days to observe religious holidays. They would be allowed to use personal days or vacation days instead.

But teachers – who have school breaks and summers off – do not get any other vacation days, and they are limited to two paid personal days each school year.

The policy under consideration says that teachers who have run out of personal days could request an unpaid day off to observe religious holidays, as long as the day off “does not impact district operations.”

The idea that the district could deny an employee a day off on a religious holiday was enough for board member Jeffrey Greenspan to object and ask for the proposal to be tabled until after the policy committee can discuss it again.

“That’s your right to practice your religion,” Greenspan said. “That’s an absolute right.”

John Heintz, the assistant superintendent for human resources and chief legal officer for the district, said that the language in the proposed policy is consistent with the Illinois Human Rights Act as well as with the policies of 20 other school districts that he surveyed.

In fact, the school district once went to arbitration with the teacher union over this very issue and won, Heintz said, but decided to allow teachers to keep using sick time anyway.

Nanciann Gatta, District 219's superintendent, said that last year roughly 30 employees took a total of 71 days for religious holidays, costing the district $8,000 for substitutes. Those days are in addition to several major religious holidays when classes generally are not scheduled, including the Jewish high holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

But observant Orthodox Jews are forbidden to work on several other days, Greenspan said, and, depending on whether they fall on weekends or not, such employees could miss six or seven days, he said.

He was less concerned that they would not be paid for those days than that they could be forced to work. Forcing them to work would effectively keep some religious groups from seeking employment in the district, he said.

But school board president Robert Silverman said the district has a legitimate interest in keeping its experienced, well-educated and well-paid teachers in their classrooms.

“It’s the rights of the employee versus the rights of the student to get a quality education,” Silverman said. “You are disadvantaging the kids in those classrooms.”

Gatta said the district has disciplined employees for excessive absences in the past, and will likely do so again. However, that discipline has not resulted only from taking too many religious holidays off. Other board members suggested that the district could change the policy, with the board instructing administrators to honor requests for unpaid religious holidays.

“I don’t think this policy is forcing someone to work,” said board member Lynda Gault-Smith.

Greenspan said that would not be good enough.

“The way this policy reads right now is the district can tell someone, ‘We are not going to honor your religious beliefs and you have to work,’” he said. “That is illegal under the First Amendment.”

Heintz said that he did not know of any court cases over religious holidays that cited the First Amendment. They generally cite the Illinois law, with which the proposed policy complies.

Pankaj Sharma, the president of the Niles Township Federation of Teachers, attended the meeting but declined to comment for the record because he hadn’t known about the proposed policy change until the board discussed it.


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