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Board Decision Revives Discussion About Religion In Public Schools

One of the largest public school systems in the United States is dropping all mention of religious affiliations for days off on its official calendar.

That means students in Montgomery County, Md., in suburban Washington, D.C., will still be getting Christmas, Easter and Jewish holidays off, but officially the ones in December will now be called winter break and time off around Easter will be spring break. Other holidays will just be days off.

The path to the board's decision started about two years ago on something that was somewhat unrelated. Members of the county's Muslim community — roughly estimated at around 10 percent of the more than 1 million population — were seeking to have two of their religion's holy days added to the calendar of days off. They wanted Eid al-Adha the most.

"That commemorates the sacrifice, the willingness of Prophet Abraham to sacrifice for the sake of his love for God," says Zainab Chaudry of the Equality for Eid Coalition in Montgomery County.

The board decided against making Eid al-Adha a day off after studying the absentee rate for that day last year. School officials said it was not much different than the rate for the average school day.

Chaudry says many Muslim parents send their kids to the school that day, which is something she experienced as a kid while attending school in the city of Baltimore.

"My parents, during the Eid holiday, they were very adamant that I not miss time from school," she says.

Next year, Eid al-Adha falls on the same day as the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur, which Montgomery County schools take off. So Muslims asked for a symbolic gesture — that a mention of their holy day be put next to Yom Kippur on the official school calendar.

Samira Hussain, who works for the county schools and has had four of her children graduate from the system, calls it a token appreciation for Muslims.

"Muslim students in Montgomery County have almost a 100 percent graduation rate," Hussain says. "And they have been accepted to some of the top universities in the United States, which is a great testimonial to our county's fine educational system. These are your students, but Muslim students also need to feel a sense of belonging, recognition and respect for their contributions."

The schools' superintendent responded by recommending the reference to Yom Kippur be dropped instead. When he presented it to the Board of Education, which has the final say, board members in short order approved removing all religious references by a 7-1 vote.

"The best way to accommodate the diversity of our community is to not make choices about which communities we're going to respect in our calendar and which ones we're not going to respect," says board President Phil Kauffmann.

Nearly all of the 16 districts across the country that are larger than Montgomery County already dropped religious mentions on their calendars, including neighboring Fairfax County, Va., which did so several years ago.

But the board's decision is starting anew decades-old arguments over the role of religion in public schools. And it seems to have satisfied very few people.

Chaudry says this is not what she and other Muslims were seeking. They just wanted the symbolic recognition of one of their holidays on an official school calendar.

"Taking this step, I think, would really help to reassure mainstream moderate Muslims in America that they are welcome, and they are a part of society," she says.

Six school systems in the U.S. are off on Eid holidays, and New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio's campaign pledged to make the city No. 7.

Copyright 2014 WAMU 88.5

Matt Bush