LYNN AND SUSAN STEIN, twins, graduating seniors at Woodson High School in Fairfax County, will miss their graduation ceremony this morning. They are staying home to honor the Sabbath of their Orthodox Jewish faith. That is their choice. But it would have been far better, for them and for the community, if this particular commencement exercise had not come to that pass.
The Steins started asking last January, quetly, to change the Saturday date. The request seemed simple enough: many other schools hold commencements at other times of the week, and comparable changes of date for large school gatherings have, in fact, been negotiated in the school district to respect the religious sensibilities of minority students in the past. Yet in turn the Woodson principal, the Fairfax superintendent and the school board (3 to 2) said no. They distinguished between the deference due minority students in required curricular affairs and normal in-school activities (no tests on religious holidays, for instance, and no Christmas pageants), and the discretion due the schools in voluntary extra- or non-curricular matters such as sports contests or commencements. There could be no question of violating the Steins' religious beliefs for an optional graduation exercise that the board was not compelling them to attend, the school board eventually argued.
It was stiff-necked of the schools not to have negotiated a new date with the Steins. It would have been fair and respectful to them and it would have deterred the acrimony, including traces of anti-Semitism, that have since spilled out at Woodson. It would also have kept intact the vitality of good-willed, non-confrontational negotiation as a technique for handling the social differences inherent in any pluralistic community.
But we wish, too, that the Steins, once they had exhausted their appeals within the school system, had not felt it necessary to escalate and take their case to the courts. This goes beyond the judgement on the part of some of the major Jewish service organizations, which are not supporting the Steins' continuing suit, that the twins would lose and would thereby set an unhappy legal precedent for not accommodating minority Sabbath observers in certain school situations. The more serious potential result is that legal clarity will be achieved at the cost of the flexibility and civility that, in Fairfax at least, have fostered the spirit of accommodation on most such occasions in the past. Whatever happens finally in the courts, that spirit should not be allowed to disappear.