They ask why a holiday wouldn’t similarly be given for Eid al-Adha, one of two major Muslim holidays, in a county with a growing Islamic community. There are no county or census figures on the Muslim population, but community leaders say that Muslims number at least in the “tens of thousands.” Montgomery’s population is nearly 1 million.
“It’s like we don’t feel equal to other people who get their holidays off,” says Hannah Shraim, 14, a sophomore at Northwest High School in Germantown.
School officials say they give excused absences to students who miss classes on religious holidays and that they can’t legally close schools for religious reasons. But the issue is gaining attention as Muslim leaders step up a call for equity and encourage Muslims and non-Muslims to keep children home Tuesday.
In recent weeks, Muslim leaders have started a petition drive, called a news conference and won the backing of a string of elected leaders and religious groups including a Lutheran church and a Jewish organization.
“We think this is very much a civil rights issue, and we’ve had a strong response from people of all faiths,” said Saqib Ali, a former state legislator and co-chair of the recently formed group Equality for Eid Coalition.
Among elected officials supporting the group’s effort is County Council member George L. Leventhal (D-At Large), who is Jewish and said he intends to keep his son home that day. “I think it’s the right thing to do,” he said.
Montgomery school officials say that, legally, granting a day off requires a secular rationale, such as an impact on instruction because of a high rate of absenteeism. Last year, the school board asked staff to examine attendance patterns on the Muslim holiday.
Figures from the past three years show Muslim holidays had little impact on attendance, school officials said. Last year, Eid al-Adha fell on a Friday, and 5.56 percent of students were absent, similar to other Fridays. About 6.5 percent of staff was absent, which was fairly typical, they said.
Maryland law designates public school holidays from the Friday before Easter through the Monday afterward and also gives time off for a period surrounding Christmas.
In the 1970s, Montgomery began giving students days off for Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah when the holidays fell on school days. “Our understanding is that decision was made for operational reasons,” Montgomery schools spokesman Dana Tofig said.
Forty years later, Muslim leaders say their concern about Islamic holidays goes back a number of years and has increased as the Muslim community has grown and more people have been affected.