Act of faith: Edina adds dates to no-meetings list

Don't expect to hear about any City Council meetings in Edina on the Islamic holidays of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha or the Hindu holiday of Diwali.

Diversity might not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about Edina, but the suburb is leading the way when it comes to acknowledging religious holidays. The city recently added 11 days of Jewish, Islamic and Hindu holidays to the list of dates on which the city will not hold regular public meetings.

The nod to the city's growing diversity, which forbids all but special and emergency meetings on those days, might be the most far-reaching religious observance policy of any city in the state.

"The face of Edina is constantly changing," Mayor Jim Hovland said at the March council meeting where the policy was unanimously approved. "We can do it this year and see how it works out."

When Edina officials checked with Minneapolis, St. Paul and 12 Twin Cities suburbs, it found that only St. Louis Park had a formal policy dictating no meetings on non-federal holidays -- in that city's case, on three Jewish holidays.

The city of Minneapolis lists many Jewish and three Islamic holidays among "significant dates" on which it tries not to schedule meetings, but the policy is informal.

Designations welcomed

Vamsi Kanduri, a priest at Sri Venkateswara Temple in Edina, is delighted that one of the holidays on Edina's list is Diwali, a Hindu holiday known as the festival of lights, which is marked in the fall.

"That's really awesome," he said. "That means American culture is really considerate of other cultures, they try to understand and want them to celebrate. It really helps us at the temple."

Also on the no-meeting day list are the Islamic holidays Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan, and Eid al-Adha, the feast of the sacrifice.

Zafar Siddiqui, interfaith and civic relations director for the Islamic Resource Group, Minnesota, said he deeply appreciated Edina's move, calling it "a step toward inclusion" for the state's tens of thousands of Muslims, most of whom live in the Twin Cities.

The city's initiative has its roots in a resolution brought last spring by the League of Women Voters-Edina. The city's Human Rights and Relations Commission also was involved in the discussion.

"We have a number of different faiths in our community, and those citizens should have an expectation to be able to attend meetings that affect them and that are not on major religious holidays," said league President Suzanne Kerwin. "We wouldn't expect a meeting to be held on Christmas or Christmas Eve."

Kerwin said the aim was to have the city avoid meetings on "significant holidays" that have work restrictions or are very sacred. Diwali, for example, lasts for several days, but this year the main festival day, which is marked with fireworks, the lighting of lamps and meals with family and friends, falls on Nov. 13.

Policy is flexible

Edina City Council members unanimously supported the policy when it was discussed last month, but they left open the possibility for change.

"As schedules are built, we may have requests on an observance or holiday that we did not even anticipate," said Mary Brindle. "It's kind of a live list."

Josh Sprague said he favored a permissive rather than exclusionary policy, and wondered whether the city would be better off making a "best effort" to avoid major holidays, as the city has done in the past. That might allow more flexibility, he said.

"I think our civic duty to provide an efficient government process comes first in our hierarchy of needs," he said.

Ann Swenson countered that the policy allowed an exception for emergency meetings. "I don't think we're adding that many days. ... I'm comfortable adopting this," she said.

City Manager Scott Neal told the council that he thought the city could work within the policy.

"We may have more dates on the calendar that may have competing public meetings on them, but it won't happen often," he said.

Changing population

Karen Kurt, the assistant city manager who researched the new policy, said the city couldn't find a statistical way to track religious preferences in Edina, but the city knows it has increasing numbers of Hindu and Muslim residents. The Sri Venkateswara Temple moved to Edina from Golden Valley last year, and has more than 1,000 members. It has links to some Edina city events posted on its website.

Kurt said that when the city checked meeting dates with the new policy, there were three out of 120 meetings this year that will have to moved -- not as many, she said, as expected.

Also on the Edina's list of no-meeting religious days are Good Friday, Christmas Eve, the evening before and the day of Yom Kippur, the evening before and the two days of Rosh Hashanah, and the evening before and the first two days of Passover.

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380 Twitter: @smetan

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