The campus at Stony Brook University (March 16, 2012)

The campus at Stony Brook University (March 16, 2012) Credit: Randee Daddona

Stony Brook University does not hate Jews, Christians, or Muslims -- or atheists, for that matter. It's just a large, religiously diverse university trying to put together an academic calendar that meets the needs of its 24,000 students. So its calendar for the 2012-13 school year will no longer cancel classes for such holy days as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Cue the fireworks.

This shouldn't be a big deal, but it managed to attract criticism from such odd political bedfellows as conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan). No surprise, though. In the America of 2012 -- really, in the America of the past two centuries -- conversations involving religion tend too often to be loud ones. Our history includes such distasteful episodes as an anti-Semitic radio priest; anti-Catholic nativists, so angry that Pope Pius IX had sent a block of marble for the construction of the Washington Monument that they stole it; and a months-long screamathon over a proposed Muslim cultural center blocks from Ground Zero.

More recently, the conversations have included Catholic teaching on contraception, the way new Jets quarterback Tim Tebow publicly kneels on the field in gratitude to God, and the question of how Mitt Romney's Mormon faith will affect his presidential chances. Then, of course, there's the enduringly dopey discussion of whether President Barack Obama -- sharply criticized during the 2008 campaign for the fiery sermons of his Christian pastor -- is really an undercover Muslim.

We're not likely to stop talking about religion anytime soon, but our religious conversations need to be more civil and less strident. The case of the Stony Brook calendar is just the most recent example.

It seems to have been fine with the students. In fact, the change came about as a result of student complaints about lack of adequate study time. Canceling classes for religious holidays makes scheduling more difficult. Besides, which religious holidays rate, and which don't? For example, the university has roughly the same percentage of Muslims as Jews. So, if you suspend classes on Yom Kippur, to be fair, you'd have to suspend them on Eid ul-Fitr, marking the end of Ramadan. The last time the university looked, students who profess no religion at all outnumbered the most populous religious group, Catholics. Is it fair to nonreligious students to make the schedule tougher on them by not holding classes on religious holidays?

So Stony Brook explored not canceling classes, but placing a strong emphasis on making sure students don't suffer if they do choose to observe a religious holiday. That turned out to be the approach taken by many State University of New York campuses, and Stony Brook's peer research universities across the country. It makes sense.

But Limbaugh and Silver blasted it. Limbaugh is just a radio host, but Silver has a huge say in funding SUNY. So it was inappropriate that he wrote to Stony Brook's president, Dr. Samuel L. Stanley Jr., to ask him to change the calendar, undoing the long process of creating it. Let's leave academic calendars to academics. In religious matters, all of us -- believers or not -- ought to slow down our I'm-offended reflex and lower the volume of our rhetoric.


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