A Virginia state judge refused yesterday to block a Fairfax County high school's plans to hold graduation ceremonies on a Saturday because it conflicts with the Jewish Sabbath.
Fairfax Circuit Court Judge Thomas J. Middleton, in a ruling that was attached by Jewish groups, rejected a lawsuit filed by two deeply religious Jewish sisters who contended that the ceremony should be held at a "religiously neutral time."
But Middleton said that the Saturday, June 7, graduation would not violate the girls' religious freedoms because they were not required to attend the event. "It's a voluntary thing," the judge announced from the bench. "There's no penalty for not attending."
The sisters, twins Lynn and Susan Stein, honor students at W.T.Woodson High School, wept as the judge announced his decision in a courtroom filled with students from the nearby school. The girls' lawyer, Michael Hausfield, said later he will appeal the case to the Virginia Supreme Court.
A spokesman for the Fairfax Jewish Community Council said his group would make a separate appeal to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors to block the graduation.
Although Middleton sided with the school board, he questioned whether it had considered fully the impact of not considering religious holy days when scheduling events is a sign of religious neutrality," he said. "Neutrality may well require a careful consideration of all religions." s
Fairfax, the judge noted, is one of the few jurisdictions in the area that allows graduations to be held on Saturdays.
A lawyer for the Fairfax County School Board, which opposed changing the date, had argued that graduation was comparable to an extracirricular activities. "Once you isolate graduation, you're laying yourself wide open" to have to change the dates of many school events, said attorney Thomas Cawley.
He said and adverse ruling would "destroy" the county schools' extensive extra-curricular program. "I urgently plead with the court not to send the state down the road of having to accommodate every aspect of life."
Hausfeld had countered that the county school board's own policy created the student's dilemma. "Their own school board policy requires that they avoid situations which cause anguish to students because of their religious beliefs," he argued. "There's no escaping it, Judge. They haven't even tried. All we asked for . . . is 'Please accommodate us'."
The Stein sisters, daughters of a Fairfax physician, had said in an interview that their family observes the Sabbath far more rigidly than many Jewish families and that they did not want to be placed in a position of having to choose between attending graduation and adhering to their faith. "We don't want people to think we're a couple of super-Jews trying to change everything," said Lynn. "We don't want to move all school activities, just graduation. It's the most important day and it comes once in your whole four years."
If their lawsuit fails, the girls have said they would not attend the ceremony.
The dispute has aroused strong emotion at Woodson High School, spliting the student body into two camps.
"I don't think the date should be changed," said one senior at yesterday's court session. "The next thing you know we won't be able to have football games on Friday nights."
Another student, who also asked to be unnamed, said she supported the sisters and admired their courage for raising the issue. "I'm Jewish too, but I could never do what they did," she said.
After Middleton announced his verdict, supporters of the Steins rushed forward to console the sisters, and opposing students congratulated one another on the rear of the packed court room.
Middleton interrupted the students, cautioning that "These young ladies have an absolute right to come before the court . . . I hope no one will think anything derogatory about them for what they have done."
Susan Stein said the judge's admonishment made her feel better and expressed relief that the trial had ended.
The Steins' attorney said the judge's comments came at his request. "These two girls have been subject to a great deal of physical and verbal abuse by students at Woodson since this began," Hausfeld said outside of the courtroom. "The least the school administrators could have done was to remind the other students that they had right to be heard.
"If I condemn them (school officials) for anything, this is it," Hausfeld said emotionally. "I can never forgive them for refusing to defend that right."
Michael Bernbaum of the Jewish Community Council said he was angered that school board witnesses had testified that they could not distinguish between the graduation ceremonies and other extracurricular activities such as football games which were difficult to police. "The most distressing thing . . . was that they had to call the ceremony an occasion for drunkenness and stress its unimportance to support their position," Bernbaum complained.