The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why a story about a school calendar went viral

(Mark Gail for The Washington Post)

Should Christmas and Easter (Christian), Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (Jewish)  and Ramadan and Eid al-Adha (Muslim) be included on public school calendars?  What about Janmashtami (Hindu), Gantan-sai (Shinto), Dalas Laxana (Jain) and Zarathosht Diso (Zoroastrian)?

This has just become an issue in Montgomery County, Md., where the Board of Education voted to remove Christmas and Yom Kippur after a group of Muslims asked that Eid al-Adha be added to next year’s school calendar. The board decided to deal with the request by removing all religious holidays from the calendar — though not the days off from school that have long been given to coincide with the holidays.

U.S. public schools, of course, are not legally allowed to endorse or promote any religious holiday (though they are allowed to teach students about them). Some districts, including Montgomery County, close schools, however, on Jewish holy days because so many teachers and students would be absent that schools could not function well. And school districts have long held their winter break over Christmas.

The Montgomery County board decision was unpopular with people of various religions, leading some board members to try to explain their action. Montgomery School Board member Rebecca Smondrowski, who voted for the decision to drop the holiday references from the calendar, was quoted by my Washington Post colleague, Donna St. George, in this story as saying:

“I just thought it was the most equitable thing to do. 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.”

It is easy to understand why Muslims may have been taken aback when their request for their holiday to be included on the calendar resulted not in the simple addition of  Eid al-Adha on the 2015-16 calendar — which, coincidentally, falls on the same day as Yom Kippur that year — but in the stripping of all religious holidays from the calendar. Rather than put their holiday on the calendar, their thinking went, the board would rather remove the Christian and Jewish holidays.

It is equally easy to see why the action was taken; the request for the Muslim holiday to be included on the calendar reminded the board that there are so many religious holidays — and so many students from various faiths — that there could be endless debate about holiday calendar inclusions.

School districts  around the country have their own policies about what goes on the calendar. In New York City, for example, the public school system’s 2014-15 academic calendar, which you can see here, includes the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah but not Christmas, Eid al-Adha or any other religious holiday. The Los Angeles Unified School District’s 2014-15 calendar mentions no religious holidays (though April 6 is marked as Cesar E. Chavez Birthday Observed, which isn’t something you see in most other districts). The Jackson Public Schools district in Mississippi  has a 2014-15 calendar that mentions two Jewish holidays — Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — but no Christian or any other religious holiday. Dec. 25, Christmas, has no special distinction other than being part of “winter break” or “winter recess.” Detroit’s public school academic calendar for this school includes mentions no holidays, not even Thanksgiving. It just says schools are closed on that day. Montgomery County’s calendar shows for Dec. 24 and 25: “Holidays — Christmas.”

Of course, teachers should be considerate of how a student’s outside life affects their academic performance, and of course teaching children about different religious faiths is a smart thing for schools to do. But shouldn’t students — or in the case of young children, their parents — who know they are celebrating an upcoming religious holiday approach a teacher in advance and figure out how to make up the work?

Why is the issue of the calendar such a big deal? Perhaps because it raises other  complicated issues, including how we deal with a multicultural society as  well as religion in a secular public institution. The intersection of religion and public education has long been complicated and emotion-laden.

But given that no public school can close for any religious holiday, we are, in the end, only talking about printed words on a calendar. Right?