My son, who attends a Montgomery County public school, is off on a bunch of religious holidays, including Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Christmas, Good Friday and Easter Monday. For years, Muslim families have been arguing that it would be only fair to include at least one of their holy days on the school calendar, too.
To be clear, my son and his schoolmates still will be off on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Christmas, Good Friday and Easter Monday. But now, these closures will come in a wrapper simply marked, “No school.”
“Though those days happen to coincide with major Christian and Jewish holidays,’’ reported The Washington Post’s Donna St. George, “board members made clear that the days off are not meant to observe those religious holidays, which they say is not legally permitted.”
Happen to coincide? That isn’t true; it isn’t a coincidence.
The decision isn’t even-handed, since Christian and Jewish kids still get their days off and Muslim kids still don’t.
Joshua Civin, general counsel of Montgomery public schools, explains that Supreme Court and appeals court precedents make clear that there has to be a secular, operational reason for a government action such as closing a public school. Students are off on those religious holidays only because absenteeism would be so high that it would be impractical to hold class.
Not all legal scholars agree that those precedents are in keeping with the concept of the separation of church and state as originally intended by Thomas Jefferson, who used the phrase in a letter to the Danbury Baptists — or by the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which forbids the establishment of a state religion and guarantees the free exercise of any faith.
“We’re not France,’’ where secularism is written into the constitution, “we’re pluralist,’’ argues Robert George, the McCormick professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University, where he lectures on constitutional interpretation. “They’re asking us to honor their religion’’ as any other, “which is all we’d be doing if we put it on the calendar. When we have a significant minority population, you recognize it; you just handle these things in a practical way.”
While the school board says absenteeism on Muslim holidays hasn’t been high enough — around 5 percent — to have an operational impact, they can’t say and don’t know how high absenteeism would have to be to qualify.
From a purely practical standpoint, wouldn’t including Eid al-Adha on the calendar encourage tolerance and understanding — and even education? We wouldn’t even be adding a day off next year, because it already falls on Yom Kippur.
Montgomery is considered this multi-culti, PC kind of place, but this decision isn’t that. And we clearly have a long way to go on the tolerance front.
Some critics mistakenly believed the decision meant that there would be class on Christmas. But many of those unhappiest with the decision, said Board of Education President Philip Kauffman, inexplicably see this as some kind of triumph for Muslims. “Lots of folks were concerned that this was their idea, and, quite frankly, it wasn’t.” Of course it wasn’t, since Montgomery rejected the Muslims’ request.
In fact, Kauffman said that in his six years on the board, he has never had so much hate mail, “and a lot of it is anti-Muslim.”
“You are wrong to cave,’’ said one letter, “and this will only be the beginning because with Muslim Islamists there is no neutral religion.”
“How dare you!’’ wrote another, Kauffman said. “Islam is a religion of hate.”
Those who most applaud the decision are my secularist friends, who think this is somehow striking a brave blow against organized religion. But it doesn’t do that, either; all it does is hurt relationships and understanding between people of different faiths.
Here is how desperately we need help with that: A new study of fact vs. perception from the research group Ipsos MORI, highlighted this week on the NPR show Here & Now, found that Americans wildly overestimate a bunch of things we perceive as negatives.
We think the murder rate is rising, when it’s falling. We think the unemployment rate is 30 percent, when it really is 5.8 percent. We believe the rate of teen pregnancy is a crazy 36 percent instead of only 14, and that immigrants account for a third of our population, instead of 13 percent. Another negative on the survey? We believe that Muslims account for 15 percent of our population — instead of only 1 percent.
And in this case, we see the last thing the Muslim community in Montgomery County wanted to see happen as some kind of victory for its power base.