Montgomery County declines to close schools on Muslim holidays

Correction: The article about an effort to close Montgomery County schools for an Islamic holy day misspelled the first name of Saqib Ali, a former state delegate and Muslim leader. This version has been corrected.

Montgomery County’s school board effectively turned down a request Tuesday from leaders of the county’s growing Muslim community to recognize an Islamic holy day next school year with an official day off.

Saying they could not simply add a school closing for a religious occasion, board members asked that student and staff attendance be monitored closely on future Muslim holidays to determine whether there is sufficient absenteeism to warrant such a move.

“I think it’s important to recognize this is not a ‘no’ forever,” said John Mannes, the board’s student member.

Students who miss school for the religious holidays are excused, but many students attend classes anyway, worried they will fall behind.

At Tuesday’s meeting and afterward, several Muslim leaders called for fairness as they noted Montgomery’s lineup of Jewish and Christian school holidays, including Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, Christmas and Good Friday.

Their testimony followed several months of effort to push for greater recognition of the Islamic holidays, particularly Eid al-Adha, which falls in mid-October next year and honors the prophet Abraham for his willingness to sacrifice his son for God.

Muslim leaders and parents stepped up the campaign last week, sending more than 500 e-mails to Montgomery administrators and elected officials, organizers said.

“All we’re asking for is equality under the law,” said Mudusar Raza, president of Maryland chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Now, families struggle on holidays, with children feeling a need to be in two places at once, he said. “You feel like your kids are missing out on their heritage,” he said.

Raza said he realizes that the school system cannot accommodate every religion with a no-school holiday but said objective criteria should be used to consider requests.

Many board members agreed such criteria is needed. No one could say how much absenteeism, for example, would effectively make the case for closing schools on a holiday.

“We have to have a standard,” said board member Christopher S. Barclay (District 4), who said he did not want to be “reactive” but instead to work toward a clearer approach.

Board member Michael A. Durso (District 5) weighed in as the board’s lone vote Tuesday against adopting next year’s school calendar with only the standard holidays.

Durso said that for “a system that prides itself on its inclusiveness and diversity,” the message may be misconstrued. “It just bothers me, what do we say to our Muslim students and parents?”

There are no exact figures on Muslim students or teachers in Montgomery, but Muslim leaders say the population is sizable and growing.

Past decisions to close school for Jewish and Christian holidays have been based on state law or student and staff absenteeism, not on honoring a particular religion, or ethnic or cultural group, officials said.

In recent years, absenteeism on Muslim holidays has not been high, they said.

Anhar Karim, 16, a junior at Northwest High School in Germantown and president of the county’s Muslim Student Association, said the lack of an official holiday makes a practical difference in the classroom.

“It took me two weeks to make up all I missed last year,” he said.

Samira Hussein, a Muslim leader who is the parent of adult children, said she was disappointed by the board’s decision and objected to what she sees as a lack of understanding.

“I’d like to see them on Christmas Day or Easter or Yom Kippur — how would they feel if their children had to leave their home, the warmth, and go to school?” she asked. “How would they feel if they were in our shoes?”

Eight of Maryland’s 24 school systems close for the two Jewish holidays, and none close for Muslim holidays, school officials said in a report.

The idea of schools closing for Easter Monday — the day after Easter — has come in for special criticism.

Maryland law requires schools to close on Good Friday and Easter Monday, among other days, board members said.

Saqib Ali, a former state delegate and Muslim leader, said the inequality is striking.

“My wife is a Christian, and she assures me that Easter Monday is not a real holiday,” he said. “So if the Montgomery County school system can find a way to justify that, we feel that most certainly closing the schools on Muslim holidays is warranted.”

The recent debate goes back several months. Montgomery County Council member George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) wrote a letter to school officials in May saying that the county’s burgeoning Muslim community deserved “the same recognition of their most sacred holidays that other faiths enjoy.”

He said that he had heard numerous complaints and that to him, the issue was a matter of “fairness, respect and inclusion.”

Donna St. George writes about education, with an emphasis on Montgomery County schools.
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