Following the Law on the School Calendar
By Phil Kauffman and Patricia O’Neill
The recent decision by the Montgomery County Board of Education to remove references to religious holidays from the 2015-2016 school calendar has generated a strong reaction from the community. People are proud of their religion and passionate about the observance of their holidays. Both of us feel the same way about our respective faiths.
Here is the bottom line: The decision the Board made to remove the names of religious holidays does not change the ability of our students or employees to celebrate their religious and cultural holidays. During the 2015-2016 school year, students will be off on Rosh Hashanah (September 14, 2015); Yom Kippur (September 23, 2015); Christmas Eve and Christmas (December 24 and 25, 2015); and the Friday before and Monday after Easter (March 25 and 28, 2016).
All the Board’s vote did was to change the way those holidays are annotated on our calendar in order to eliminate the misconception that schools are closed for religious reasons. We cannot legally close schools on religious grounds. Furthermore, the Board’s action is in line with what is done at many other large, diverse districts across the country, including Dallas, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Baltimore City, Fairfax County, Arlington County, Gwinnett County (Georgia), and Hillsborough County (Florida), just to name a few.
We made this change to emphasize that we cannot—under state or federal law—close schools for a religious reason. Any decision to close schools on a particular day must be made for a secular, operational reason, such as high absenteeism of students and/or staff. This was affirmed in a 1999 U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals decision (Koenick vs. Felton), which involved Montgomery County Public Schools, as well as a decision by the 2005 Maryland State Board of Education, ADC Baltimore v. Baltimore County Board of Education.
In the Baltimore County case, the Maryland State Board of Education ruled that “it would be illegal for a local school system to close schools for the purpose of recognizing a religious holiday of one particular faith.” The decision goes on to state that “the school system must have some secular purpose for designating school holidays such as economizing educational resources on days with high absenteeism rates for both students and teachers.”
It is these federal and state laws—grounded in the United States Constitution—that keep us from being able to honor the requests from some members of the Muslim community to close on Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha solely for religious reasons. We are sympathetic to their request. When Eid al-Fitr or Eid al-Adha occur on a school day, Muslim parents and students are forced to choose between spending the day celebrating and sending their students to school. It is a similarly difficult decision for many of our Asian families who celebrate the Lunar New Year, our Hindu and Sikh families who celebrate Diwali, or the many other holidays celebrated by our richly diverse community.
We have strict policies that ensure that our students and staff are not penalized for celebrating a religious or cultural holiday that occurs on a school day. For instance, we do not administer districtwide assessments on the Eid holidays, and teachers are encouraged to not have major tests or project deadlines on these days. Also, students must be given an opportunity to make up any work. It is due to the respect that we have for the religious diversity of our community that we recognize and publish the dates of more than 100 religious and cultural holidays in our Comprehensive Calendar, which is given to every district employee and is published on our website. This ensures that all staff are aware of and accommodate the religious preferences of our students and community members.
We recognize this is not a perfect solution for these families, and we will continue to monitor the operational impact of the Eid holidays. For instance, Eid al-Adha last occurred on a school day on October 13, 2013. The absentee rate that day was 5.6 percent for students and 5.0 percent for staff. This is not significantly higher than our absentee rate for students and staff on any given school day.
Moreover, the Board of Education has made a commitment to developing criteria and guidance and working with the community to ensure there is a fair and equitable process for determining when it is appropriate for MCPS to close for operational reasons.
We also will speak with districts that have made the decision to close on the Eid holidays to see what criteria they used and how they measured the operational impact. That includes Dearborn, Michigan, where officials tell us that as many as half of the students and staff in the public schools are Muslim. And while Dearborn does close for the Eid holidays, it should be noted that the district’s school calendar does not list the names of religious holidays, either.
Finally, it is important to emphasize how strongly we condemn the outpouring of bigotry and hate toward the Muslim community that has been generated by our decision. As a Board we are united in respecting and appreciating the advocacy of our growing and vibrant Muslim community, and we will continue to ensure that they and other groups feel safe and welcome in our schools. Indeed, one of our core values is respect, and we call upon our entire community to reaffirm the importance of tolerance of all religions as we celebrate the rich diversity of Montgomery County.