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US Public Schools Face Dilemma Over Muslim Holidays

With Muslim minorities growing across the United States, many are demanding that public schools close not just on the Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter, but also on their major holidays such as Eid al-Fitr at the end of Ramadan and Eid al-Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice.

Six school districts already do close on those Muslim holidays, and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio promised during last year’s election campaign that he would add the public schools in the nation's largest city to the list. But the “Equality for Eid” campaign has also suffered setbacks.

Montgomery County, Maryland, outside Washington, D.C., consistently scores high in rankings of the best schools, and the county's Muslim population has grown to around 10 percent.

In November, Muslim parents and activists showed up at a meeting of the county board of education to make their case for adding their religious holidays to the school calendar.

Fourth-grader Musa Siddiqi said the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha should be a day off from school. “Whenever I have Eid on school days, I have to be dropped off of school [be absent], and then it goes on my report card, and I do not like how that goes,” he said.

Disadvantage seen for Muslims

Activist Zeinab Chaudry said that even though absences for religious reasons are excused, Muslim children are at a disadvantage.

“Classes are still in session. Teachers will still teach,” she said, and students will miss out on any exams scheduled for holidays if they decide to stay home on those days.

Muslims in the county saw an opportunity for 2015 because Eid al-Adha is expected to coincide with the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur, which has been a school off-day in Montgomery County since the 1970s, when the board found that 15 percent of students and teachers in the district were absent.

Rabbi Batya Steinlauf of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington told the board that Eid should be added to the school calendar as a way of recognizing “the rich diversity of Montgomery County.”

But board members were skeptical.

“A public institution should not be in the business of recognizing religious holidays,” said Chairman Phil Kauffman.

Holiday names removed

Instead of recognizing Muslim holidays, the board voted to remove all the names of religious holidays from the school calendar, including Christmas, Easter and Jewish holidays — though schools will still be closed on those days.

“It seems like someone’s bending over backwards really, really hard to try not to give equality to the Muslim community,” Saqib Ali of the Equality for Eid Coalition said at the meeting. Afterward, he predicted the decision would “cause significant backlash in the wider community against the school board, and against this administration.”

Indeed, some of the reaction online accused Montgomery County schools and Muslims, erroneously, of being against Christmas.

Charles Haynes, an expert on religion and education at the Religious Freedom Center in Washington, said the school board was in a bind, like many others in this country, “because the United States is now one of the most religiously diverse places in the world."

“And more and more religious minorities in the United States are speaking up and saying, ‘We are here, too. You have accommodated the Christians and the Jews on the calendar. What about us?’ ”

Haynes said that if a religious minority in a school district is large enough, it can make a secular argument that the school should close because of high absenteeism. “But absent that argument, the school board may not do it without violating the First Amendment," he said, referring to the constitutional provision that separates religion and state.

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