At nearly every Baltimore County school board meeting for the past decade, Dr. Bash Pharoan has testified for his allotted three minutes about a single issue: the calendar.
The Muslim physician, whose children attended county schools, wants the school system to close for two Muslim holidays a year when they fall on school days. He says he is seeking parity with Christians and Jews, who get several holidays off from school.
So far, his persistence has not paid off. No board member had commented on the issue for years in what Pharoan describes as a "code of silence." Then there was a glimmer of hope last month when Michael Collins, the board's contrarian member, suggested that perhaps the board should consider noting on its 2015-2016 calendar that Yom Kippur and the Islamic holy day Eid al-Adha both fall on Sept. 23. The change would be a purely symbolic gesture.
A short, heated debate erupted. Pharoan stood up during the debate to make sure the board members remembered him.
"I know my heart rate went up to 120. I felt quite emotional. I did not really cry, but it was close. This was the first time in so many years that I felt someone on the board was willing to speak up for our community," he said. Once again, he did not get what he wanted, though the board's policy committee is studying the issue.
Pharoan is not alone in his efforts to have schools recognize Islamic holy days. Montgomery County Muslims have also asked for the days off and a small number of communities around the country are closing schools on the holy days. New York City's mayor pledged to close school on Islamic holy days during his campaign, and a united Muslim community is now pushing for action on the issue.
From the Baltimore County board's perspective, the issue is not about religion, but is rather a purely secular question. Schools close for the Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter Monday, as well as the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, not to celebrate those holidays, but because so many staff and students would stay home, the board has said. The schools would have to hire substitutes for teachers who were absent and teachers would have to repeat lessons for the students who had missed them.
In his remarks before the board, Pharoan often tells the members that their practices are discriminatory.
"I resent that for five years I have been called a bigot," said Lawrence Schmidt, a former school board president who has been a member of the board throughout that time.
Schmidt said he respects Pharoan's right to speak. "I admire his persistence," Schmidt said. "I think he is completely wrong in his arguments."
In Montgomery County, a group of Muslims founded Equality for Eid two years ago to advocate closing for the Islamic holy days.
"It is a matter for asking for equal rights. It is not that we want to be treated differently. We want to be treated equally," said Zainab Chaudry, co-founder and chair of the Maryland office of the Council on American Islamic Relations, which is leading the effort in Montgomery. Chaudry said she has received complaints from Baltimore County parents but has not been in touch with Pharoan.
The U.S Census does not compile data to detail how many Muslims live in Montgomery and Baltimore counties, but Chaudry said she believes those counties and Howard County have the largest populations of Muslim students in the state. Her organization has estimated, based on attendance at mosques, that Muslims represent about 10 percent of the Montgomery County population. Most Muslim parents send their students to public schools, she said.
Several school systems across the United States, including Dearborn, Mich., and Cambridge, Mass., close for the Islamic holidays.
Dearborn has closed its schools for about the past 15 years, said David Mustonen, director of communications for the Dearborn school system. About 50 percent to 60 percent of the 19,500 students in the schools are Muslim, he said, and the decision to close was an effort to be responsive to the community.
An American Religious Identification Survey found that in 2008, there were 1.3 million Muslims in the nation. Each Friday, about 1,800 to 2,000 adults come to the Islamic Society of Baltimore, located in Catonsville, to pray. The number more than doubles on holy days, according to Maqbool Patel, former president of the Islamic Society.
Most school districts, including Baltimore County's, will give Muslim students an excused absence on their religious holidays, but Chaudry says parents, many of them immigrants, are reluctant to take their children out for the day because they place great value on education and don't want them to miss lessons.
Montgomery County school officials have said they must see evidence of a high absentee rate during the Muslim holidays before they will take action, but just how high is not clear. Baltimore County officials say attendance did not dip on a Muslim holy day last year or the year before.
"There is no evidence that we are suffering excessive rates of absenteeism [of students and teachers] because of being open on Muslim holidays," said Schmidt.
Chaudry said the only way the Muslim community will be able to prove there are enough students to warrant a school holiday is if parents keep their children at home those days, something her organization told parents to do last fall.
Just as Easter falls on a different day each year, so do the two Islamic holy days of Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr. Eid al-Adha usually is celebrated in the fall. This year, Eid al-Fitr, which celebrates the end of Ramadan, falls on July 28. In the next several years, Chaudry said, there is no year when more than one holiday occurs on a school day.
If school leaders were to recognize the holidays, she said, her organization has recommended that schools have already existing professional development days for teachers take place on the Muslim holidays. The action, she said, would not increase the number of days that students take off and would allow Muslim families to celebrate and pray together.
Maryland's laws and regulations designate which holidays school systems have to close for, including Christmas and Thanksgiving. Local school systems decide whether to close for the Jewish holidays. While Baltimore County as well as the surrounding counties of Anne Arundel, Howard, Carroll and Harford close for two Jewish holidays, Baltimore City does not.
A federal appeals court ruling in 1999 said that school districts had a "plausible secular purpose" to close schools during religious holidays when there would be a high rate of absenteeism.
"Under the First Amendment, the public school must have an educational or secular purpose in what it does," said Charles Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute. "When a change in student policy affects everyone, then they may not do it for religious purposes or to serve the purposes of one religious group."
The issue of the Muslim holidays is expected to come before the Baltimore County and Montgomery County school boards again in the next several months.
The Baltimore County school board decided to approve the calendar for the 2015-2016 school year without mentioning the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha and to refer the issue to its policy committee. The study by the policy committee will be difficult, board members said, because there is no available data on students' religions.
"I think the time has come to recognize our changing demographics," said school board member Collins. "I think it would be symbolic, but a powerful message."
Pharoan said that when his children went to school, they felt uncomfortable because they had to sing Christmas songs. Now they are grown, but eventually he expects to have grandchildren in the public schools. He plans to continue to attend every school board meeting and to address the board about the issue.
"If I quit, I am not good for the generation who come after me. I know the chances are very small, but someone has to start somewhere," he said.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun