Presented with the opportunity to recognize a Muslim holiday on the school calendar for the first time, leaders of Maryland's largest school district went a different direction: They removed all mention of religious holidays from the calendar.
Many school districts nationwide don't spell out religious holidays on the calendar, having replaced "Christmas Break" with the secular "Winter Break." But school officials in Montgomery County, Maryland, a wealthy and diverse Washington suburb, are being criticized for the impetus behind their decision: a push by Muslims to close schools on the Eid holy days.
Muslim activists had asked the board to note on next year's calendar that Yom Kippur, a day when schools are already closed, is also Eid al-Adha. The two holidays do not always fall on the same date. But the board rejected that proposal, instead voting 7-1 to close schools on the same days as usual without mentioning their religious associations.
As a result, Christians and Jews are upset at the removal of their holidays from the calendar, and Muslims are upset that theirs weren't included. Conservative bloggers seized on the decision as part of a perceived "war on Christmas" by secular forces. And Muslims accused the board of hiding behind secularism to protect more established communities.
"It was a no-win situation for us," school board chairman Phil Kaufman said.
Still, Kaufman believes the decision was fair and that some of the furor over it was misplaced. Schools, after all, will remain closed on Christmas, as well as on the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. But Zainab Chaudry of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a co-chair of the "Equality for Eid" campaign, sees a more sinister motive.
"It shows they would go to any lengths, they would take drastic measures to deny the Muslim community the right to have the Eid holiday on the school calendar," she said.
The Constitution bars public schools from using religious holidays as a reason for closing. Schools can only close if opening would significantly affect their operation — essentially, because so many students and teachers would be absent that the school couldn't function. That's why the county opted to close schools on the two Jewish high holidays starting in the 1970s.
At the time, the school system had an absentee rate of around 15 percent on the Jewish holy days. When it last studied the absentee rate on a Muslim holiday, it was around 5 percent — about the same as the rate on a normal day. But school officials don't know exactly how many Jewish students they have or how the Jewish population compares with the growing Muslim population.
Montgomery County's school system is the 17th largest school district in the nation, with 154,000 students.
A handful of school systems around the country are closed on the Eid holidays, including in Dearborn, Michigan, which has a large Muslim population.
Montgomery County schools also send out a more detailed calendar that mentions all religious holidays, and students aren't penalized for missing school for religious reasons.
Courts have upheld decisions to close schools based on absenteeism rates, including in a federal appeal that found Maryland wasn't endorsing Christianity by requiring schools to be closed on Good Friday and Easter Monday.
Leaders of the Eid campaign say the school system hasn't established clear criteria for what should cause schools to be closed. There are other days with high absenteeism rates, such as Take Your Kids to Work Day.
"They've cherry-picked a handful of religious holidays for favored communities and used a secular excuse to grant only those days," said Saqib Ali, a former Maryland state delegate and a co-chair of the Eid campaign.
Schools Superintendent Joshua Starr declined to comment Wednesday. He had recommended that the board eliminate mention of only the Jewish holidays because schools are closed on those days at the county's discretion, while the state requires that schools be closed on Christmas. Board members rejected that suggestion, deciding that it would be more equitable to remove mention of Christian holidays as well.
The associate pastor of Gaithersburg Presbyterian Church, Norman Gordon, said that decision sent a message to all students that their faith is not important. Gordon has three children in county schools, and Ali's wife, Susan Simmons Ali, is one of his parishioners.
"I think, in an effort to be politically correct, they've kind of snubbed not just one particular faith tradition, but all three," Gordon said.
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