Equity & Diversity

Should Districts Scrub Names of Religious Holidays From School Calendars?

By Madeline Will — November 13, 2014 3 min read
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The Montgomery County, Md., school board’s decision to strike all references to Christmas and other religious holidays from the official 2015-16 school calendar—which sparked an uproar in the suburban Washington district—raises questions for public school officials across the country who may confront similar dilemmas as communities grow increasingly diverse.

The Montgomery County school board this week voted 7-1 to eliminate all references to religious holidays from its published school calender, though schools will still be closed for major Christian and Jewish holidays, as they have been in the past.

Practically speaking, nothing will change. But the board’s decision was prompted largely by repeated requests from Muslim community leaders to close schools for the Muslim holy day Eid al-Adha, also known as the Feast of the Sacrifice.

According to the Washington Post, board members said while the days off on the new calendar coincide with major Christian and Jewish holidays, they are not meant to observe the religious holidays and the calendar will not mention the holidays by name.

Instead, they said, the days off on the new calendar simply reflect both what the state has mandated and the days that have traditionally had a large numbers of absences among students and employees.

(It’s not unprecedented: Fairfax County, the largest school district in Virginia, also doesn’t name religious holidays on its school calendars.)

Last year, Muslim community leaders urged Muslim families to keep students home for Eid al-Adha to sway the school board with a high number of absences—but the amount, 5.6 percent of students and 5 percent of teachers, was just slightly higher than a comparable day, according to the Post.

While it’s considered an excused absence to miss school for a religious holiday in Montgomery County, Muslim families argue that it’s not fair to make students choose between their faith and going to school.

This has been a growing conundrum for school districts across the country, said Charles Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum in Washington.

The U.S. Constitution mandates a separation of church and state, and in recent years, educators have been more cognizant of how that relates to public schools, he said. While Christian holidays have historically been cemented into the calendar and a holiday like Christmas is federally recognized, some school districts are now revisiting their calendars to see if Easter should still be a day off, for example.

“Public schools are in the position that if they accommodate a religion and give a day off (for a religious holiday), they have to have a very clear secular reason,” Haynes said.

Many districts close schools on Jewish holidays, for instance, because so many students and teachers are absent, and the schools can’t function.

Montgomery County’s decision to remove references to the religious holidays was largely symbolic, Haynes said, and was unlikely to satisfy the Muslim community. (Indeed, Muslim community leaders were dismayed and surprised by the board’s action, according to the Post.)

Still, he advised that the best course of action for districts is to excuse absences for a reasonable number of religious holidays without penalty.

“You can’t possibly accommodate the many growing religious groups (in this country) on the school calendar by making everyone stay home, because we’d have very few days of school,” Haynes said.

And, he said, if a district accommodates one religious group’s holidays, members of another religion will ask, ‘what about us?’

For example, in New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he plans to close public schools during major Muslim holidays, including Eid al-Adha, as well as Lunar New Year.

But that opened another question—should schools also close for Diwali, the festival of lights celebrated in the the Hindu, Jain, and Sikh communities? Hindu community leaders in New York City have been pushing for that recognition (a request that has been echoed in districts elsewhere, including in New Jersey).

Haynes called it “a balancing act"—accommodating religious requests as secularly and fairly as possible. I think we’re going to see a lot more of these issues as the United States becomes more religiously diverse.

Educators, have you seen these situations arise in your districts? If so, how have they been handled?

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A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.