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Baltimore County school board votes against closing for Muslim holidays

Members of the Muslim community stand during the Baltimore County school board's vote on whether to close schools during the Muslim holidays.
Members of the Muslim community stand during the Baltimore County school board's vote on whether to close schools during the Muslim holidays. (Liz Bowie)

A move to close schools in Baltimore County for Muslim holidays failed by one vote at the school board Tuesday night.

The 6-5 vote came after an emotional discussion among school board members, while dozens of Muslims stood in the audience.

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Some school board members said they believed it was the right time to give equity to the Muslim community.

"It is time to do the right thing. Set aside your ambivalence. … Recognize the realities of Baltimore County, the nation and the world," said school board member Michael Collins, in support of recognizing the holidays. "We will say something powerful and something correct. We will clearly do the right thing."

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But other board members questioned whether closing schools would meet a legal challenge. They argued that court rulings said that schools could only close for a secular reason. School board member Ann Miller said there was no data to prove that enough Muslim students would be absent and disrupt the normal course of business in classroom to close schools. "I don't believe any kind of data or any anecdotal data has been presented. We know there is a lot of support for this," Miller said.

Collins was supported by four other members of the board, including Romaine Williams, who argued vehemently that there was as much anecdotal evidence to close schools for Muslims as there had been 20 years ago when the board made a decision to close for the Jewish holidays.

After the vote, Muslims in the audience expressed their displeasure. Some shouted "Injustice!"

The board had to call a five-minute recess before continuing.

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Other members of the Muslim community thanked the board for their consideration of the issue.

The vote came after more than a decade of advocacy by the Muslim community. A school board subcommittee recommended the move, which has been considered by other school systems around the state.

The school system would have been the first in Maryland to close on the two most important Islamic holidays, Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr, when they fall on school days.

The vote followed a 12-year effort by Dr. Bash Pharoan, a Muslim physician whose children attended county schools. He had spoken at nearly every meeting, requesting parity with Christian and Jewish students who get some of their religious holidays off.

The school board denied his request just two years ago and said there were not enough Muslim students to warrant it.

Two other Maryland school systems have been inching toward recognition of Muslim holidays. In the past year, Montgomery and Howard counties decided to move their professional development days for teachers to Eid al-Adha, a holiday that changes every year based on the lunar calendar.

Baltimore County's school board took a similar step in the past year and designated the holiday as a teacher training day. As a result, Baltimore County public school students already are scheduled to be off Sept. 12 for Eid al-Adha. New York City has also recently begun closing schools for the Muslim holy days.

Muslim parents who have advocated for the school closures over the years have argued they were in the untenable position of having to choose between allowing their children to observe important religious and cultural holidays and having them keep up with their classes.

Maryland's laws and regulations designate which holidays school systems must observe. Those include Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter Friday. Local school systems are permitted to decide whether to close for Jewish holidays based on projected absenteeism. While Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Howard, Carroll and Harford counties close for two Jewish holidays, Baltimore City does not.

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