- Muslims in Montgomery County asked the school district — the largest in the Maryland with 140,000 students — to close schools on their two most important religious holidays, just as the district does for major Christian and Jewish holidays.
- Instead, the school board voted 7-1 on Tuesday to strip all mention of religious holidays from the calendar, even though Christian and Jewish holidays remain official days off.
- Next year, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha both happen to fall on vacation days. So all the school board would have had to do is add the holiday names to the calendar as a symbolic gesture.
- Muslim leaders urged students to stay home last year, hoping to force the district's hand on a day off, but there were not enough absences to change minds.
- The fight demonstrates a growing dilemma for public schools, which are more diverse than the nation as a whole.
Why Montgomery County's move is controversial
The school board's decision seems to have made everyone mad: Muslim leaders are furious that the board would get rid of religious holidays before acknowledging Muslim ones, while conservative media outlets are accusing the board of "banning" Jewish and Christian religious holidays in order to appease Muslims.
These two tweets just about sum up the reaction:
Shame on you @MCPS . You'll play the grinch just so you won't have to grant ONE day for Eid-al-Adha??— Shabana Mir (@ShabanaMir1) November 12, 2014
The big picture
Montgomery County is grappling with a dilemma that will soon become more common: when is a holiday significant enough to be recognized?
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced earlier this year that public schools will close for Eid, as well as for the Lunar New Year — and Hindu, Jain, and Sikh leaders then asked for the city to add Diwali, a holiday for their faiths.
Without a high level of student absences districtwide to force action, picking which holidays to acknowledge and which to ignore is fraught. And in a diverse city or school district, the holidays pile up. For an example of how complicated it can be for schools to accommodate all religious holy days, take Beloit College in Wisconsin, which has a comprehensive list of holidays that count as excused absences for its students and faculty. It includes Baha'i, Pagan, and Zoroastrian holidays occurring about once every two weeks.
The public schools are more diverse than the adult population. The US Education Department projected that nonwhite students would be a majority in the public schools for the first time this year, a trend driven mostly by the children of Asian and Hispanic immigrants:
As those demographic trends continue, many more districts will have to try to pull off the cultural balancing act that Montgomery County just handled so clumsily.