School district changes 'Christmas' to 'winter' holiday: Political correctness or sensible nod to diversity?

My former AJC colleague and former Georgia DOE spokesman Dana Tofig has been busy this week; he is the public information officer for Montgomery County Public Schools most noted – until this week – for its superstar superintendent Joshua Starr and its high-achieving students

Quick holiday trips from Atlanta include Dahlonega, which is a hub of seasonal activity with carolers, lights, Santa visits and other events during November and December. Contributed by Jack Anthony Something tells me whether schools call their December break Christmas or winter, students will know what the holiday is about. (AJC FIle)

Credit: Maureen Downey

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Credit: Maureen Downey

This week the Maryland district took a stand in the Christmas wars, a mild stand to many but apparently a full-scale assault to those who believe Christianity is under attack in our public schools.

The school board voted to remove religious holidays from its calendars, in part because Muslim leaders had been requesting the schools close for at least one of the Muslim holy days.

The Washington Post reports Muslim leaders were unsuccessful "but in the 2015-2016 academic year, Eid al-Adha falls on the same day as Yom Kippur, which is a day off in Montgomery. So  Muslim leaders asked for equal billing  on the calendar."

In an effort to be sensitive and resolve the question, the Montgomery school board voted this week to cleanse the school calendar of all mentions of religious holidays while still closing schools on those days.

So, the schools are still out for Christmas, only now the term is winter holidays. Some Georgia districts also call the December vacation "winter break."  I have not heard any complaints, probably because the change was made quietly and without any public debate.

That was not the case in Montgomery County.

According to the Washington Post:

Montgomery's Board of Education voted 7 to 1 Tuesday to eliminate references to all religious holidays on the published calendar for 2015-2016, a decision that followed a request from Muslim community leaders to give equal billing to the Muslim holy day of Eid al-Adha.

Board members said Tuesday that the new calendar will reflect days the state requires the system to be closed and that it will close on other days that have shown a high level of student and staff absenteeism. Though those days happen to coincide with major Christian and Jewish holidays, board members made clear that the days off are not meant to observe those religious holidays, which they say is not legally permitted.

As regular readers of this blog would have predicted, this decision did not sit well with the public and the school board and district are now under siege.

Among the criticisms posted on the Post story: Only one word for the Montgomery County School Board....STUPID! I graduated from MCPS and went on to obtain higher level college degrees. I was always proud to say that I was a product of MCPS. Now, I am embarrassed. Montgomery County, Maryland has permitted political correctness to replace sound judgment.

But there was also this comment – the position that seems the most rationale in this debate -- One person's "political correctness" is to another something that's right to do. After all, some of us celebrate Yule, Winter Solstice and get more than a little weary of the endless pushiness people have about this sort of silly thing.  In the 1970's, my school district made it Winter Break and we still carried on celebrating Christmas at our house with zero impact to our merriment.

Here is the official Montgomery Schools statement:

On November 11, 2014,  the Montgomery County Board of Education made the decision to remove references to religious holidays from the 2015-2016 calendar. This is similar to what is done in many other districts in the region and across the country, including Baltimore City, Loudon CountyFairfax County and others.

This Board action DOES NOT CHANGE the days that students have off—students and teachers will still be off on Rosh Hashanah (Sept. 14) and Yom Kippur (September 23) next school year. All schools and offices will also be closed on Christmas Eve and Christmas (December 24 and 25), the Friday before Easter (March 25, 2016) and the Monday after Easter (March 28, 2016), which are all state public school holidays. However those holidays themselves will not be named on the posted school calendar.

The change was made by the Board to recognize that the decision to close schools must—under federal and state law—be made for a secular or operational reason, such as high absenteeism of students and/or staff.  MCPS cannot close for religious reasons.

This was affirmed in a 1999 U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals decision (Koenick vs. Felton), which involved Montgomery County Public Schools, as well as a decision by the 2005 Maryland State Board of Education, ADC Baltimore v. Baltimore County Board of Education.

MCPS is an extremely diverse county and our students and staff celebrate a wide variety of religious and cultural holidays. While the operational impact of some holidays may not rise to the level of requiring us to close school, we do respect the rights of students and staff to celebrate those holidays.

The Board of Education has made a commitment to develop criteria and guidance and work with the community to ensure there is a fair and equitable process for determining when it is appropriate for MCPS to close for operational reasons.

Students who miss school to celebrate a holiday for which MCPS is not closed are granted an excused absence and are given an opportunity to make up any work. Major religious holidays on which MCPS schools are opened, such Eid al-Fitr, Eid al-Adha and Lunar New Year, are designated “no testing days” districtwide. Teachers are encouraged not have major tests or major project deadlines on such days.