The Fairfax County School Board has turned down a request by four Jewish students to reschedule their high school graduation ceremony so it would not conflict with the Jewish Sabbath.
An attorney for the four Woodson High School seniors said they may now seek a federal court injunction to bar the Saturday morning ceremony.
"It's sad that the issue has to go as far as it is going," said attorney Michael D. Hausfeld. "If the school board had been truly sensitive, there is no reason why they could not have accommodated the students. . . (and) had the graduation at a religiously neutral time."
The decision not to change the graduation ceremony, which Woodson officials had set for Saturday, June 7, was reached by a 5-to-3 vote of the board last week. The board heard arguments on the case and discussed it in a closed executive session.
"It's my personal opinion," said board chairman Rodney F. Page, "that this is not only a matter of the Jewish Sabbath involved. There are a number of other school activities that conflict with religious activities of a number of different religions.
"If the graduation had been scheduled for a major religious holiday such as Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur or Easter Sunday, then in my view we should take that into account and change it," Page added. "But I don't see how we can take an ordinary Sabbath and say we will not schedule any event on that day. . . I don't know how you could find time on the weekend for a school event where some religious group wouldn't have a conflict."
In a memo presented to the board, Hausfeld and another attorney, Marc Busman, argued that a Saturday morning ceremony forces Jewish student's "to either abandon their religious observance or their graduation. This is no choice at all."
The memo contended that a Saturday ceremony violates the freedom of religion clauses of the U.S. and Virginia constitutions as well as school board policy on dealing with religion in the schools.
Neither Hausfeld nor the school board would release the names of the students who sought the change.
One of the students, who would only talk to a reporter if her name were not used and she has kept her involvement secret "even from my best friends."
She said that if her classmates found out what she was trying to do, "It's not going to be like we're heroes, but the exact opposite. There'll be 503 students against it. A lot of beach reservations would have to be rescheduled."
Another one of the students said there were only 12 Jews in their class of more than 500, and that most of them weren't religious and didn't care if graduation was on Saturday.
But she said she attended Saturday services regularly, walking 45 minutes to synagogue each way to observe the Orthodox Jewish rule against riding on the Sabbath.She said she took her College Board exams at a special session on a Sunday, instead of the usual time on Saturday.
School administrators who turned down the students' request before it went to the school board said they were impressed by the sincerity of their religious beliefs. But they said that attending graduation was voluntary and had no academic significance.
Besides Woodson, nine other Fairfax high schools have scheduled their graduations for Saturday, June 7.Eleven others have planned ceremonies for Friday evening, June 6, which also conflicts with the Jewish Sabbath, which lasts from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday.
Until 1977, Woodson's graduations were usually held on Sunday evenings. Principal Robert Phipps said they were changed in 1978, because Saturday morning was more convenient for staff volunteers and because "the morning hour is more conductive to a dignified ceremony."