Muslims voice protests over school calendar

The Baltimore Sun

Muslim advocates, some of whom have pressed for years to persuade Baltimore County school officials to close schools for Islamic observances, were quick to criticize the proposed calendar for 2008-2009 as it was presented to the school board last night.

As usual, the calendar includes days off for Rosh Hashanah and Christmas, but makes no mention of Eid al-Fitr or Eid al-Adha.

"What is so hard about being equal and fair; you closed schools on Jewish holidays but did not close them on the Islamic holidays," said Hadear Abdou, a student at Towson University. "We have even compromised and said at least one holiday should be closed. This was an attempt to meet you in the middle, but apparently you have not made that equal attempt."

Bash Pharoan, president of the Baltimore chapter of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said the proposed calendar was discriminatory. "The superintendent chose to reject the 18- to 20-member calendar committee's unanimous support for adding one school closing day on Eid al-Fitr and simply throw it away."

Pharoan was a member of the calendar panel, which met four times between February and April to make suggestions, including a request that schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston consider closing for Eid al-Fitr, which celebrates the end of Ramadan, a month of daylong fasting and reflection.

After last night's school board meeting, Pharoan said he was disappointed that none of the board members raised any question about Hairston's proposal.

The school board will take public comments on the proposed calendar at its next meeting, May 22. It is expected to adopt a calendar next month.

Two weeks ago, about three dozen people attended the school board meeting to support closing on at least one of the two most holy Muslim holidays, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.

Supporters held up white 8 1/2 -by-11-inch sheets of paper with messages such as "Diversity and Equality" and "Got Equality? Let Us Share," and stood while others in their group addressed the school board members during the public comment portion of the session.

Last night, about a dozen supporters held up similar signs during the board meeting's public comment period.

Pharoan and other area Muslims said that closing schools for the Muslim holidays - as the school system does for the Jewish observances of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and Christian holidays of Christmas and Good Friday - is a matter of treating all faiths equally.

But school board members maintain that state law forbids them from closing schools for solely religious purposes.

Maryland law requires schools to be closed from Christmas Eve through Jan. 1 and the Friday before and Monday after Easter to avoid widespread absenteeism. In addition, schools are required to be closed on Thanksgiving and the day after, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Presidents Day, and primary and general election days.

Although Maryland law doesn't require schools to be closed for Jewish holidays, Baltimore County schools have closed for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur since 1995. School officials have said the decision was made because of concerns about student and staff attendance on those days.

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