Religious holidays back for study
Baltimore County schools to look at closing to permit all students’ observances
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.”