As an increasing number of U.S. public schools adjust their calendars to observe Muslim holidays, a debate is growing over how far schools should go to accommodate minority religious populations–and where they should stop.
Federal and state laws prohibit schools from penalizing students for missing school on religious holidays. In many school systems, these have long included Good Friday and the Jewish holidays of Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah and Passover.
In many districts with sizable Catholic or Jewish populations, schools have traditionally closed on these holidays. But now the list of religious holidays increasingly includes Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan, and Eid al-Adha, which honors the Prophet Abraham. Some schools no longer administer tests on those holidays; others won’t schedule school events, including sports activities, on the night before the holidays; and some districts are choosing to close their schools entirely.
But critics warn that schools may be heading down a slippery slope that will open the door for more extensive accommodation requests from the Muslim community, as well as demands from other minority religious communities looking for the same treatment.
According to a bill currently before the [New York] state Senate that would declare the two Muslim holidays school holidays in the city, “Muslims constitute approximately 10 percent of the student body in the New York City School District.”
In neighboring New Jersey, Mike Yaple, spokesman for the state’s School Boards Association, said most of the roughly nine districts in the Garden State that decided to close schools for Muslim holidays used the same rationale as Bloomberg.
“South Brunswick just recently decided they’re going to close for two Islamic holidays and one Hindu holiday. The county in which South Brunswick is in has the highest concentration of Asians–19 percent–in the state.”
In Dearborn, Mich., where schools are closed on both the day before and the day of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, the predominantly-Muslim football team has switched its two-a-day summer practice schedule to 11 p.m. to 4 a.m. during Ramadan, so that Muslim players–who fast while the sun is up–won’t be forced to practice in the heat without drinking water.
In Maryland, Anne Arundel County recently decided to ban sporting events on the night before Muslim holidays, as well as tests administered on the holidays themselves–even though Muslim leaders estimate the Muslim population comprises less than 2 percent of the 521,000 residents of the county.
Rudwan Abu-Rumman, President of the Anne Arundel County Muslim Council, says Muslim students should not be forced to miss exams or school events in order to celebrate their holidays.
Peter Huessy a member of the Maryland Taxpayers Association Board of Directors, says the accommodations are still too much.
“I have no problem with someone if they’ve got a religious holiday and can’t take a test, OK, take the test another time, but to inconvenience everyone else and say no tests and no sports is ridiculous,” Huessy told FoxNews.com. “. . . If you’re an Orthodox Jew and can’t drive on the Sabbath, they don’t cancel football. Either you walk to practice or your game, or you choose not to go. That’s your choice.”
The biggest issue, Huessy says, it that each “crazy” request that’s accommodated encourages more extensive requests in the future.
“If communities cave once, they’ll cave again and again,” he said. “. . . What’s next? No school during the whole month of Ramadan?”
In Baltimore, which has refrained for years from scheduling tests on Muslim holidays, the city’s Muslim leaders say they want more.
Pharoan [Bash Pharoan, president of American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee’s Baltimore Chapter] says he is fighting to ensure that schools don’t administer tests on the day after the holidays, either, so Muslims won’t have to worry about studying during their observance. And even though he estimates Muslims comprise only 3 to 5 percent of the student body, Pharoan says ultimately he wants to see the district close on those days.
Burlington [Vermont] Superintendent Jeanne Collins said having the Muslim students miss school on their holiday negatively impacts student achievement.
“Our Muslim population is largely a refugee population of recent arrival refugees; that also adds to a complication of English not being their native language. So again missing school does have a significant impact on their learning,” she said.
But the change has already triggered requests from the area’s small Hindu community to have one of its holidays off, she said, and she “absolutely” fears a domino effect of requests from other minority religions could be on the way.
“At this time, not having a Hindu population whose attendance is affected by absences, the board is not taking any action on that request,” Collins said. “It’s very important to stress again that the decision of the board is not stressing or recognizing any holiday for any religious reasons but that the actions of the board are focused on student achievement.”
When Muslims in Hillsborough County, Fla., pushed for a day off to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, the Hindu community there also started pushing for a day off to celebrate a Hindu holiday. The school board responded by dropping its days off for all religious holidays, but later reinstated days off for Good Friday, the Monday after Easter and Yom Kippur after thousands of e-mails protesting the move poured in from around the country, and the Muslim community leaders requested the days off be returned to the school calendar.
Bradley Blakeman, a professor of public policy and politics at Georgetown University, says the best thing school districts can do is tailor their calendars and holiday accommodations to the wants and needs of their communities.
“That’s the beauty of having a school district responsive to the localities as opposed to blanket rules that affect multiple jurisdictions, states or even countries” [says Blakeman]. “One size doesn’t fit all when it comes to these kinds of rules and regulations. We’re not a homogeneous nation, which makes us so great.”