A Maryland school district recently decided to remove all religious holiday names from its official calendar, but this isn’t another chapter in the phony “war on Christmas.”
It’s not a battle in the “war” on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur or Easter, either.
Instead, the Montgomery County Board of Education voted 7-1 yesterday to boot all religious holiday names from its 2015-2016 calendar. The current calendar lists standard holidays such as Christmas and Easter, as well as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur because the county has a large Jewish population. As a result, schools are closed for those holidays because many teachers and students would be absent were the schools open.
Although schools are not officially closed for Jewish observance, Maryland requires a certain number of days off and some are scheduled to coincide with those Jewish holidays, The Washington Post reported.
By no means does the board’s decision change anything for students – they will still get days off for Christmas and the major Jewish holidays. Christmas will occur over “winter break,” while Easter will fall during “spring break.” Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur will be marked as “no school for students and teachers,” The Post said.
The change came about in part due to requests from Muslim groups. Over the years, they have petitioned the school district to schedule a day off to coincide with Eid al-Adha, a fall holiday that translates to “the feast of the sacrifice.” It’s a reasonable request, but the reality is Montgomery County just does not have a large Muslim population. The Post said the number of Muslim students in the school district is unknown, but in 2013 on Eid al-Adha only 5.6 percent of students and 5 percent of teachers were absent – numbers just slightly higher than would be expected on a regular day.
The board’s decision may seem a bit strange to some. My guess is that the board didn’t really want to deal with a difficult issue. While officials may have sought a nod to plurality by removing religious holidays from the calendar, in reality they did almost nothing new to accommodate Muslims. Christian and Jewish holidays will still be school holidays.
“This seems the most equitable option,” board member Rebecca Smondrowski said.
But not everyone saw it that way. Some Muslims still feel excluded.
“By stripping the names Christmas, Easter, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, they have alienated other communities now, and we are no closer to equality,” said Saqib Ali, a former Maryland state delegate and co-chair of the Equality for Eid Coalition.
The situation faced by Montgomery County officials has no easy solution. Public schools should never be in the business of promoting religion, but sometimes remaining open on a religious holiday would make it impossible for the schools to function because so many staff and students would be absent.
At the same time, while public schools should always be sensitive to religious beliefs, it’s impossible to close for the day every time there is a major religious holiday. Almost every district in the country likely has at least a handful of devotees to almost every philosophy or belief system imaginable.
We also need to realize that what makes sense in one community may not in another. A board in Dearborn, Mich., for example likely would choose to close on Eid al-Adha because that area is about one-third Muslim.
Regardless of demographics, all school districts should make an effort to accommodate everyone and employ common sense. Don’t schedule tests or big project deadlines on major religious holidays. Don’t penalize students who miss class for religious reasons. There’s nothing complicated or difficult about that.
If everyone gets a reasonable accommodation, no one can plausibly argue that there is a public school “war on Christmas” or any other holiday.