Montgomery County school leaders to discuss closing for Muslim holidays

June 6, 2012

When Montgomery County Council member George L. Leventhal sent a letter to school leaders late last month asking for schools to be closed on two Muslim holidays, he cited the county’s significant Muslim population and religious fairness.

But school systems in the state cannot declare days off — in this case, Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr — solely because they are religious holidays, no matter population demographics, said Rochelle Eisenberg, of Towson-based Pessin Katz Law P.A., a lawyer who specializes in education and employment law.

School systems must base the decision on attendance rates to avoid violating the establishment clause, which prohibits lawmakers from exerting religious preference, Eisenberg said, citing a 1999 Maryland court ruling.

“What you have to do is determine that there are so many absences in the school system, between students and staff, that the school system cannot be properly run,” Eisenberg said.

Leventhal (D-At Large) asked Superintendent of Schools Joshua P. Starr and Board of Education President Shirley Brandman in his letter to consider fairness, respect and inclusion.

“Thousands of our neighbors fill mosques throughout the county for religious observance and deserve the same recognition of their most sacred holidays that other faiths enjoy,” he wrote.

Dana Tofig, a schools spokesman, said the board would consider Leventhal’s request.

But Board of Education member Judith Docca of Montgomery Village, who represents the 1st District, said it is unlikely the schools would close on those days.

“We can’t really function as a school when a lot of kids are out, and we have very few teachers,” Docca said.

County schools are closed on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Christmas Eve and Christmas, Good Friday, the day after Easter and other nonreligious holidays.

State law requires the Christian holiday closures. The county school system requires the Jewish high holy day closures.

The school system recognizes both Muslim high holy days by declaring them nontesting days and giving Muslim students excused absences.

The school system was not able to provide data regarding past school attendance during Muslim holidays.

The state’s decision to close schools on Good Friday and Easter Monday was upheld in 1999 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, in a case that originated in Montgomery County, Eisenberg said.

No school systems in the Washington area take days off for Muslim holidays, but some school systems across the country have decided to, such as in Cambridge, Mass., Burlington, Vt., Dearborn, Mich., and Trenton, N.J.

Even if the board were to consider the closures, it is unlikely that next year’s school calendar would change because the calendar was finalized in November, Tofig said.

The option to add the days off can be discussed during the calendar-setting process, which occurs near the beginning of each school year and involves community members, he said.

Leventhal’s request excited Samira Hussein of Gaithersburg, who has been fighting for Muslim education and acknowledgment in Montgomery schools for two decades. A petition did not work six years ago, the last time she tried, but it might now, she said Thursday.

“The Muslim community has grown,” she said. “They are more alert and more educated about how the system works. We have a much better chance than we had 15 years ago.”

There are an estimated 7 million Muslims in the United States and about 250,000 in the Washington area, said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. The number has doubled during the past 10 years, he said.

Lily Qi, the county’s liaison to Asian and Middle Eastern communities, said the Muslim population in the county has grown in the past 20 years.

She estimated about 6 percent of the county is Muslim, although she said there is no way to accurately measure the data, as the census does not track religion.

Mosques in the county that used to have one prayer service now have five, Hussein said; at some prayers there are 3,000 to 5,000 people.

Hooper said he thinks it is more of a judgment call of a local school system to decide whether to close schools, depending on the negative effects on students.

There are other options besides a day off, such as a floating holiday for all students, inw hich students are given one day off of their choice, Hooper said.

Docca said a professional day on the holidays could be something the school calendar planning committee considers.

Hussein said if the Muslim community can get together with one mission, there is a chance that the new superintendent and new school board members might listen.

“When we are organized, and speak in one voice, it will make a difference,” she said.

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