Panel wants to add 2 holidays for Md. students


Responding to calls from the Muslim community to close Baltimore County schools for the faith's two most sacred holidays, a state education department committee yesterday proposed that public school students across Maryland be given up to two "floating holidays" for religious observance.

The proposal, which state education officials said would likely require a legal review, was made by a committee on minority student achievement whose chairwoman has watched Muslims lobby the Baltimore County school board for months.

"I realized that this went beyond Baltimore County," said Barbara Dezmon, an assistant superintendent in Baltimore County schools and chairwoman of the Achievement Initiative for Maryland's Minority Students Steering Committee. "This is an issue that applies to different religious groups all over the state and all over the country."

The Muslim community has turned out in force at every Baltimore County school board meeting for the past year asking for equal opportunities for religious observance.

Bash Pharoan, president of the Baltimore County Muslim Council, called the proposal "a step in the right direction, no doubt about it."

He emphasized, however, that he would not be satisfied until Muslims receive equal treatment for their holidays. Either schools must close for Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha along with the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, or close for none of them, he said.

It is up to local school districts to decide whether to close on individual holidays, Dezmon said.

She said the proposal is a compromise in a debate confronting school districts with a multicultural population: Districts must be respectful of all religions, but they can't close school for every holiday.

The state committee, made up of 22 education and community leaders, will submit its proposal to state Schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick for her analysis. Grasmick appoints the committee members.

The committee left it to Grasmick's staff to determine the details of the proposal, specifying only that it would apply to all children practicing "world-recognized religions."

"This issue has the potential of being really complex," said Deputy Superintendent Ronald Peiffer, adding that the education department would likely seek advice from the attorney general's office. "We need to get a lot more information."

Under the proposal, children who miss school for up to two religious holidays would not only have excused absences but would be eligible for awards of perfect attendance if they do not miss any other days of school. Their school year would effectively be shortened from 180 days to 178.

Muslims have repeatedly told the school board that perfect school attendance is a point of pride in their community.

The absences also would not affect the attendance records that schools must keep under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The 17 members of the committee at yesterday's meeting voted unanimously in favor of the proposal.

Dezmon said the floating holidays would benefit Jewish students in the many Maryland school districts that do not close for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

One county school board member, Warren C. Hayman, and one recently retired board member, Phyllis E. Ettinger, sit on the committee. Fearful of setting a precedent for other religious groups, the school board has not acted on the Muslim community's request.

At a meeting Tuesday night, county school board President James R. Sasiadek made the rules on public comment more restrictive, a move that the Muslims took as a slight against them.

From now on, only three people may comment on a single issue, and speakers must be present to sign up for public comment at the beginning of board meetings. Since public comment is last on the agenda, that means speakers will often have to wait as much as three hours after signing up.

The Baltimore chapter of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee issued a statement yesterday calling the changes "a veiled attempt to muzzle the Muslim American public comments to the board's discrimination policy against Muslim citizens of this county. The board ruling is an infringement of the freedom of speech of the public and poses undue hardship on families."

In an interview yesterday, Sasiadek responded to the Muslims: "Their actions have imposed a hardship on anybody else who wishes to speak before the board."

Speakers at Tuesday night's meeting talked of the increasing discrimination against Muslim-Americans after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks -- all the more reason, they argued, to educate children in public schools about Islam's peaceful teachings.

Their most sacred holidays celebrate the end of Ramadan, a month of daytime fasting and reflection, and the Quranic account of God letting Abraham sacrifice a sheep instead of his son.

"For the 40 years I have been here, I have been celebrating Christmas with my friends," said Sanaullah Kirmani, who has two sons at Towson High. "I want my boys' friends to celebrate with us."

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