Lynn and Susan Stein seem a little nervous as they sit -- side by identical side -- on the sofa in their parents' confortable Fairfax home.
Both twins are the kind of students that teachers and school administrators like to show off.Headed for prestigious eastern universities in the fall, the two are valedictorians and popular members of their senior class at Woodson High School, and members of the National Honor Society.
But Lynn and Susan Stein are at odds with the school system right now -- ever since they filed suit against Woodson Principal Robert E. Phipps and the Fairfax County school board in March.
The sisters say the reason is simple: They want to attend their own graduation without violating the principles of their Jewish faith.
The Woodson graduation is scheduled for June 7, a Saturday, which is the Jewish Sabbath.
As the girls talk about the lawsuit, they glance occasionally at their lawyer, Michael Hausfeld, and their parents, Evelyn and Jerome Stein, across the room. As the minutes tick by, the five other Stein children slip into the room -- the youngest ones wide-eyed and dressed in pajamas -- anxious to hear what their older sisters have to say. a
Lynn and Susan Stein talk about being Jewish in a school which is predominately Christian and about "insensitive" school administrators who they say have completely missed the point.
"We were really mad when we read what (school board chairman) Rodney Page said," recalls Lynn, referring to a Washington Post story which quoted Page as saying commencement was scheduled for Saturday because it was "an ordinary Sabbath."
"There is no such thing as an ordinary Sabbath. Under Jewish law, the Sabbath is the holiest of days," she says somberly. "It takes precedence over all other holy days."
School officials have refused comment since the Steins filed their lawsuit several weeks ago.
The Stein family follows strict religious laws in observing the Sabbath -- from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. Each week they walk 45 minutes to synagogue rather than violate their religious beliefs by driving.
Because of their faith, the girls say they have been given a choice this year: as two of the several valedictorians representing the Woodson graduating class of more than 500, they can attend the Saturday commencement exercises or keep the Sabbath as commanded by jewish law.
"That is really no choice at all," says Hausfeld.
Lynn and Susan say their religious practices are a personal matter and their degree of religious devotion should not enter the argument of when to hold the graduation. They say the Jewish Sabbath deserves the same respect given Sunday morning among Christians.
"They would never schedule anything for a Sunday morning," they say.
Lynn points out that nearly every high school in the county has set aside Sunday afternon -- not morning -- as a raindate for Saturday morning commencement exercise.
Until 1977, Woodson graduation ceremonies were held on Sunday evenings. Principal Phipps authorized the change to Saturday, Morning in 1978 as a matter of convenience.
Besides Woodson, nine other Fairfax high schools have scheduled Saturday morning graduation ceremonies. The 11 other schools have chosen Friday evening, a time which also conflicts with the Jewish Sabbath.
"We don't want people to think we're a couple of super-Jews trying to change everything," says Lynn. "We don't want to move all school activities, just graduation. It's the most important day and it just comes once in your whole four years."
"We're not religious fanatics," adds Susan.
The Stein sisters say they have not taken up this cause at the last minute.
They claim they made inquiries during their junior year about the graduation date and put in requests early that the ceremony be set for Friday afternoon, Saturday night or Sunday afternoon.
When Principal Phipps turned down their request for a scheduling change in December, they began the long process of appeals: to Area II superintedent Joseph L. King, to Superintendent L. Linton Deck, to the school board.
All appeals were denied.
"I'm optimistic, I always think we're going to win," says Susan with a smile.
Now the case is in the courts. A hearing has been set for tomorrow to determine whether the school should be allowed to mail out graduation announcements with the June 7 date. Hausfeld says he is almost certain of reaching an agreement with the school to hold back announcements voluntarily until the case is finally decided. That decision is expected in Fairfax Circuit Court on April 21.
The suit seeks a change in this year's schedule at Woodson and a requirement that all future commencement exercises in the county be scheduled for a religiously neutral time.
Armed with letters of support from the National Council of Churches, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church, the District of Columbia Baptist Convention and chaplains from American and Georgetown universities, Hausfeld says the girls are being supported by most of the local Christian denominations.
In addition, Hausfeld said he has obtained statements from school superintendents in Arlington and Montgomery counties explaning that commencement exercises are never scheduled for Friday evening or Saturday in those jurisdictions.
Katy Kinney, student body president at Woodson, said Lynn and Susan have a great deal of support among the senior class, which has been criculating a petition asking for a change in this year's graduation date.
The Stein sisters say they began with a simple request -- and now find themselves embroiled in a legal battle -- but have no regrets.
"At dinner last night our parents asked us if we had it all to do over again, would we," said Susan. "We both said we would."