Re­li­gious hol­i­days back for study

Bal­ti­more County schools to look at clos­ing to per­mit all stu­dents’ ob­ser­vances

Baltimore Sun - - NEWS - By Liz Bowie liz.bowie@balt­sun.com

De­spite re­ject­ing a move to close schools on cer­tain Mus­lim hol­i­days, Bal­ti­more County school board mem­bers said they aren’t drop­ping the is­sue.

The de­ci­sion to con­tinue ex­am­in­ing when schools should close for re­li­gious hol­i­days came af­ter a con­tentious meet­ing at which the board voted 6-5 not to grant the hol­i­day clo­sures re­quested by mem­bers of the Mus­lim com­mu­nity.

Be­fore they voted, board mem­bers heard lengthy and emo­tional com­men­tary from sup­port­ers and op­po­nents of Mus­lim hol­i­days in county pub­lic schools.

Mus­lim lead­ers were stung by the de­feat of a decades-long ef­fort to have their holy days rec­og­nized on the school cal­en­dar. They de­nounced the vote and pre­dicted that it would fur­ther marginal­ize Mus­lim stu­dents.

“This smells of big­otry and dis­crim­i­na­tion,” said Muhammed Jameel, pres­i­dent of the Is­lamic So­ci­ety of Bal­ti­more, which has 30,000 con­gre­gants in the area.

Mus­lim par­ents wanted the school board to close school on two Is­lamic holy days, Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr, when they fall on school days. It is rare that both hol­i­days fall on a school day in one year. The board sched­uled one of its pro­fes­sional de­vel­op­ment days for teach­ers on Sept. 11, which co­in­cides with Eid-al-Adha this year, so all stu­dents have the day off.

Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ra­madan, will fall on June 25 next year and roughly 11 days ear­lier with each pass­ing year.

Jameel said the board’s ac­tion makes it harder for Mus­lim lead­ers to com­bat peo­ple who want to rad­i­cal­ize Mus­lim youth, ar­gu­ing that Amer­i­can so­ci­ety dis­crim­i­nates against them.

“It is a very wrong mes­sage that is sent by the board,” Jameel said.

If board mem­bers had ap­proved the re­quest, Mus­lim holy days would have shared equal stature with Jewish holy days. The school sys­tem closes for the Jewish hol­i­days of Yom Kip­pur and Rosh Hashanah each year.

Im­me­di­ately fol­low­ing the vote Tues­day night, the board voted to have its pol­icy re­view com­mit­tee take up the is­sue of clos­ing on all re­li­gious hol­i­days.

Board mem­bers who were op­posed said the school sys­tem can legally close only for sec­u­lar rea­sons. A fed­eral ap­peals court rul­ing in 1999 and state court rul­ings have said schools can close on re­li­gious hol­i­days only when they can show there is a sec­u­lar rea­son, such as an eco­nomic or lo­gis­ti­cal rea­son to close. For in­stance, if schools would need to hire a large num­ber of sub­sti­tute teach­ers dur­ing a re­li­gious hol­i­day, or if a large num­ber of chil­dren would be ab­sent that day.

“Next time around, the Bud­dhists or the Hin­dus will be as­sert­ing the same thing,” said board mem­ber Ann Miller. “I think we need to be clear what will trig­ger the clo­sure.”

The sys­tem, which does not col­lect data on the re­li­gious af­fil­i­a­tion of its stu­dents, has no way of know­ing how many Mus­lim, Chris­tian or Jewish stu­dents are en­rolled.

Board mem­bers who fa­vored clos­ing on Mus­lim hol­i­days said they be­lieved only anec­do­tal in­for­ma­tion was avail­able to sup­port clos­ing schools for ei­ther the Jewish or Mus­lim re­li­gious days, and it was there­fore dis­crim­i­na­tory to leave out Mus­lim holy days.

Jameel ap­plauded those on the board who took a stand, say­ing the close vote was at least a mea­sure of how far they had come.

Board mem­ber Nick Ste­wart, who was not at the meet­ing, said he would have voted against the mo­tion. Although Ste­wart told Bashar Pharoan, a Mus­lim who has ad­vo­cated for school clo­sure, he would sup­port the mea­sure, Ste­wart said he changed his mind be­cause of le­gal is­sues. His par­tic­i­pa­tion would not have changed the out­come of the board’s de­ci­sion; seven votes were needed to pass the mo­tion..

“All we get is re­jec­tion and push­ing the is­sue back ... is not pos­i­tive,” said Pharoan, who has come to nearly ev­ery board meet­ing for the past 12 years to speak about the is­sue dur­ing the pub­lic com­ment pe­riod. “It is just a stall tac­tic, not any­thing more than that.”

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