School district scraps religious names on calendar

Presented with the opportunity to recognize a Muslim holiday on the school calendar for the first time — potentially upsetting non-Islamics — leaders of Maryland’s largest school district chose an alternative that has riled up both sides: removing all mention of religious holidays.

Many school districts nationwide don’t spell out religious holidays on their calendars, having replaced “Christmas Break” with the secular “Winter Break.” But school officials in Montgomery County, Md., 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.

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 remaining open 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.

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.

But 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.

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