New York’s Indian-American State Senator Kevin Thomas introduces bill to make Hindu, Sikh, Muslim school holidays

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New York State Senator Kevin Thomas speaking on the Senate floor in Albany as his fellow legislators applaud. Sen. thomas is the first and only Indian-American lawmaker in the Empire State’s history. (Photo courtesy office of Sen. Thomas)

New York State Senator Kevin Thomas, the first and only Indian-American in Albany in the history of the Empire State, is sponsoring a bill that establishes school holidays for people of Hindu, Muslim and Sikh faiths among others.

“It’s about time our diverse population gets the opportunity to celebrate its holidays,” Sen. Thomas told Desi Talk.

The bill identifies Diwali, Vaisakhi, Onam, Eid al Fitr, Eid al-Adha, and Good Friday, and calls for amending the current list of cultural/religious school holidays for the whole state rather than the current restricted areas where Diwali is recognized.

However, it is not all encompassing, and allows school districts with population equal to or greater than seven and half percent of those cultural/religious groups to declare these days as holidays.

Currently, New York City schools recognize the Chinese Lunar new Year (Feb. 5, 2019), and Eid al-Fitr (June 4, 2019), but the demand for Diwali was not accepted despite a push by the Indian-American community last year, according to Suhag Shukla, executive director of Hindu American Foundation.

Sen. Thomas however, wants these cultural and religious festivals to be recognized state-wide. How successful he will be is not clear, though the movement within the community for such school days has been growing.

“Parents call and ask us what to do to get Diwali off for their kids,” Shukla said. “We advise them to work with the district to get it on the school calendar,” she added.

Kevin Thomas, now New York’s only Indian-American State Senator who represents District 6, with supporters during his campaign for office. (Photo: Facebook website of campaign)

Senator Thomas introduced bill, S4038 which “Relates to establishing certain cultural and religious observances as school holidays,” on Feb. 26. and through it he wants to enable students from different religious and cultural backgrounds to celebrate their traditional festivities with their family and community, the text of the bill says.

“When I was campaigning I told the large crowds of South Asians I would do this. And that’s what I’m doing … keeping my promise,” Thomas emphasized. He said many members of Indian-American and South Asian communities told him they missed being able to celebrate as a family on the specific day of the religious or cultural event. “That’s what was my intention in introducing this bill – to promote our religions and our cultures.”

Bill S4038 has been read twice and ordered printed and is currently with the Committee on Education. Thomas said it may take time for it to be passed but that it had several supporters including Senators John Liu (District 11) and Leroy Comrie (District 14), both from the borough of Queens which has a significant South Asian population. Liu and Comrie wanted to list Diwali to the existing holidays.

“But you can’t exclude the others from the South Asian hemisphere,” Thomas said.

Section 1 of the bill amends the education law by adding a new section, 3204-a,  that allows school boards or trustees to determine certain cultural and religious festivities as holidays based on ethnic/religious concentrations of communities.

“We welcome this type of legislation because it educates teachers,” Shukla, told Desi Talk. “And while most school districts could not meet the 7 and a half percent threshold, at least parents can move with this proposal to push for placing holidays like Diwali or Vaisakhi or Onam on the school calendars,” she said, adding, “That way, at the very least, teachers avoid scheduling exams or major projects due dates on thos particular days.”

Section 2 adds a new subsection to Section 3604 of the education law that allows the commissioner to disregard any reduction resulting from observance of these traditional and religious days, and instead be calculated as session days, the details of the bill say.

“It is also personal for me to have these school holidays,” Thomas told Desi Talk. As a child in Dubai, he had school holidays for Diwali and Eid. “But when I came here, there was nothing.” Sen. Thomas came with his parents to the United States when he was 10.

If Bill 4038 is passed, it will mean for instance, that places like Richmond Hill, which has a large Sikh population, school children of that faith could have Vaisakhi day off. While there may be some push-back from schools, conceded Thomas,  “It’s all about capturing the diversity that is New York,” Sen. Thomas said.

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