SHAFAQNA (International Shia News Association) A Maryland school board has voted to strike all references to religious holidays from a published scholastic calendar, eliminating any mention of faith celebrations and frustrating a local Muslim community that had repeatedly asked officials to recognize an Islamic holy day.
The Montgomery County Board of Education voted 7 to 1 on Tuesday to remove religious holidays from its 2015-2016 calendar, which previously made mention of Christian and Jewish celebrations. The vote impacted all religious groups, but came after a sustained campaign organized by local Muslim leaders to convince the board to recognize the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, also called the Feast of the Sacrifice.
“They would remove the Christian holidays and they would remove the Jewish holidays from the calendar before they would consider adding the Muslim holiday to the calendar,” Zainab Chaudry, co-chair of the Equality for Eid Coalition, told the Washington Post.
The recognition of religious holidays on the school calendar was largely symbolic. Public schools in Montgomery County cannot formally observe specific faith celebrations, as doing so would potentially violate laws mandating the separation of church and state. However, members of the Montgomery County Muslim community argue that even a nominal gesture to a Muslim holiday would be a step towards equality, especially given that the school calendar already recognized the Jewish celebration of Yom Kippur, which overlaps with Eid al-Adha this year and next year.
“By stripping the names Christmas, Easter, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, they have alienated other communities now, and we are no closer to equality,” said Saqib Ali, a former Maryland state delegate and co-chair of the Equality for Eid Coalition, told the Washington Post. “It’s a pretty drastic step, and they did it without any public notification.”
And while officials stressed that they cannot formally enshrine certain religious holidays, Montgomery County schools will still be closed around Christmas, Easter, and Jewish celebrations because those days have a “high level of student and staff absenteeism,” according to the Washington Post. Local Muslim leaders have long advocated for one of their holidays to qualify for this absentee threshold by collectively keeping their children home from schoolduring two major Muslim celebrations. Many non-Muslims from the surrounding community also kept their children away from classes on those days in solidarity with the group — including County Council member George L. Leventhal, who is Jewish — but the officials said that the absences weren’t enough to justify a school closure.
Board members insisted during the meeting that the vote was not meant to single out the Muslim community, but the timing of the decision is unfortunate, as it comes during an uptick in visible anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States. In September, an anti-Muslim group took out incendiary ads in New York City buses using images of the extremist group ISIS to imply that Islam is an inherently violent religion. Worse, a Molotov cocktail was hurled at the wallof an unoccupied mosque in Albuquerque, New Mexico in October, and on November 4th a unidentified gunman fired several shots at a mosque in Coachella, California. No one was harmed in either incident, but officials are exploring the possibility of investigating the second attack as a hate crime.
Saqib Ali, a former Maryland state delegate and co-chair of the Equality for Eid Coalition, sent ThinkProgress an email with the following statement about the school board’s decision: “I think the Board made a significant mistake. When the simplest and most logical action would have been to include the Muslim community, the board found a way to continue excluding them. Their action to remove the names of other holidays is a too-cute-by-half measure that doesn’t fool anybody. [Superintendent Joshua P. Starr]‘s continued refusal to establish a concrete threshold for closing schools is very disappointing. We have asked him many times.”
“MCPS still closes schools exclusively on Christian and Jewish holidays. How can they can claim with a straight-face that these closures aren’t religiously motivated when they stay open on many other days with high absenteeism (such as ‘Take Your Child to Work Day’) is beyond me.”