MUSLIM LEADERS in Montgomery County stress that, in petitioning school officials to set aside an Islamic holy day as an official day off, they are not advocating for any of the currently recognized holidays to lose their designations. The unwillingness to broach that possibility is understandable, given the sensibilities and traditions attached to these holidays. But the issues of fairness and equity raised in the county’s debate over when schools should close require renewed scrutiny of a calendar that may no longer be relevant given changing demographics.
The Montgomery County Board of Education decided Tuesday not to add Eid al-Adha to the lineup of days off in the 2013-14 school year. “All we’re asking for is equality under the law,” said Mudusar Raza, president of the Maryland chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations as he ticked off the litany of Christian and Jewish holidays on which schools close.
It’s hard not to be sympathetic to the struggle of Muslim students and their parents in balancing school and religious obligations; students who miss school for religious holidays are excused, but many say they feel they can’t miss class for fear of falling behind. Yet it’s also hard not to see the problems that would result if Montgomery were to further balkanize its calendar to accommodate even more religious holidays.
Montgomery officials say they close schools not to recognize a particular faith (that would be unconstitutional) but for valid secular reasons. The Jewish holidays of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah are days off because officials say there would be high rates of absenteeism for both students and teachers. Good Friday and Easter Monday are days off because of an anachronism in Maryland law that gives local officials no choice in the matter.
We have to wonder, though: Does anyone really know the impact of schools staying open on these days? Wouldn’t it, for example, be better to have a predictable spring break rather than one tied to the ever-changing date of Easter Sunday? No good data are available, as schools are barred from asking questions about religion. That makes it increasingly difficult to square the system’s aim for inclusiveness with the illogic of why the day after Easter is a holiday and Eid al-Adha is not.
Montgomery officials made the right decision for the 2013-14 calendar, but a more thoughtful discussion is needed for the future. Are the worries about low attendance grounded in reality? Should Montgomery lead an effort to change state law so localities can have more flexibility? Or should the school system start from scratch and leave religion out of the equation when making up calendars? Students could take excused absences on their religious holidays, and the schools would be out of the business of ranking religions’ popularity.