The backlash was intense Wednesday to the Montgomery County Board of Education’s decision to scrub Christmas and other religious holidays from its published school calendar — without disturbing the days off.
It came by e-mail, tweets and Facebook messages — passionate views, along with some confoundment. Several Montgomery school board members reported that few people of any faith seemed happy with their Tuesday vote.
Montgomery school board member Rebecca Smondrowski, for one, was flooded with angry messages. She had supported a proposal to strip Jewish and Muslim holy days from the calendar and offered an amendment to remove Christmas and Easter, too.
A day later, she stood by her decision and stressed that students would still have the holidays off; only the calendar presentation would change. The idea, she said, was to reflect that schools were not being closed for religious observances but because of high absenteeism among students and staff members on those days.
“I just thought it was the most equitable thing to do,” she said. “I respect and appreciate so much that this is a very personal issue for so many people. I was in no way trying to imply that I don’t respect people’s religious practices. I do.”
School board Vice President Patricia O’Neill said she is confident that the board made a good decision. “It seems we’ve made multiple religious groups mad, but I believe we did the right thing,” she said. “And we’re in good company. Fairfax, Arlington, Loudoun — all are silent in calling out Christmas; they call it winter break.”
Montgomery’s school board vote to eliminate calendar references to religious holidays followed an earlier request by Muslim community leaders to give equal prominence on the calendar to the Islamic holy day of Eid al-Adha.
Muslim leaders had for years requested that Montgomery’s schools be closed for at least one of the two major Muslim holy days. They had not succeeded, but in the 2015-2016 academic year, Eid al-Adha falls on the same day as Yom Kippur, which is a day off in Montgomery. So Muslim leaders asked for equal billing on the calendar.
Board member Michael A. Durso, who cast the lone vote against stripping away all religious holidays, said the board may have underestimated how strongly people feel about recognizing those days.
“I think in the board’s efforts to resolve a situation, we may have created a few more problems than we intended,” Durso said.
Montgomery County Council member George L. Leventhal (D-At Large), who had testified before the board Tuesday to support noting Eid al-Adha on the calendar, said Wednesday that he was disappointed in the board’s action and had heard from many constituents who felt the same way. He said that with increasing amplification of the issue on social media, he worried that Muslims would be blamed for what some would wrongly perceive as a canceling of Christmas.
“No one asked the board to remove Christmas or Easter or Yom Kippur or Rosh Hashanah,” he said.
In response to requests to add days off, school officials have said that the system cannot by law close simply to recognize a religious holiday.
Charles Haynes, who has written guidelines on how to deal with religion in schools and is director of the Religious Freedom Center at the Newseum Institute in the District, said the board’s decision to do away with holiday names was unnecessary if school closings are done for legitimate reasons, such as high absenteeism.
“The issue isn’t what you call the holidays,” he said. “It’s whether you have a secular purpose in giving the holidays.” He said it should not be complicated. “The question is whether the schools can function properly on that day.”
Montgomery County officials note that state law requires school closings for days surrounding Christmas and Easter.
The decision to close schools for Jewish holidays goes back to the 1970s, officials say, although there has been some dispute about how high absenteeism would be on those days.
Saqib Ali, a former state delegate and co-chairman of the Equality for Eid Coalition, said he hoped the board would reconsider its decision. “People are very, very upset,” he said. “The board has framed it as a measure of inclusiveness, and I think everyone has been seeing it as a very exclusive move.”
Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, said he was surprised by the board’s action but added: “As long as all faith groups are treated fairly and equally, that’s the most important thing.”
Several board members, including Smondrowski, said Wednesday that they would press for the school system to set clear guidelines to decide when schools should close on holidays, as some Muslim leaders have requested.
“For whatever reason, the administration has been less than willing to come up with a hard and fast criteria,” said board member Christopher S. Barclay. “Well, now I think it is time for the board to make a decision.”