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Debate Grows as U.S. Schools Adjust Calendars to Observe Muslim Holidays

As an increasing number of U.S. public schools adjust their calendars to observe Muslim holidays, a debate is growing over how far schools should go to accommodate minority religious populations -- and where they should stop.

Federal and state laws prohibit schools from penalizing students for missing school on religious holidays. In many school systems, these have long included Good Friday and the Jewish holidays of Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah and Passover.

In  many districts with sizable Catholic or Jewish populations, schools have traditionally closed on these holidays. But now the list of religious holidays increasingly includes Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan, and Eid al-Adha, which honors the Prophet Abraham. Some schools no longer administer tests on those holidays; others won't schedule school events, including sports activities, on the night before the holidays; and some districts are choosing to close their schools entirely.

Some school districts are making the accommodations due to functional issues associated with holding school, tests, or events on days when a substantial number of students and faculty will be absent; others have decided that they simply want to be inclusive of their Muslim community, no matter what the size.

But critics warn that schools may be heading down a slippery slope that will open the door for more extensive accommodation requests from the Muslim community, as well as demands from other minority religious communities looking for the same treatment.

Mohamed Elibiary, President and CEO of the Freedom and Justice Foundation, a Texas-based organization aimed at improving interfaith relations in the state, says the issue is a difficult one to weigh-in on.

"I'm a little torn," Elibiary, a Muslim, told FoxNews.com."I want Muslims to be getting the same recognition as other Americans, but at the same time I don't want to see public education systems be a battleground between religious identities, because then we're missing the point of why we have a public education system to begin with. It's not because of the holidays; it's for the effective education of the populace."

"But there has to be some opening up for people like myself who are brought up here to feel like they fit in that American identity," he added.

In New York City the debate has pitted the mayor, Michael Bloomberg, against the City Council, and it has prompted protesters to lobby for a state law to resolve the issue.

"Educating our kids requires time in the classroom, and that's the most important thing to us," Bloomberg said on his radio show, arguing against the City Council's passing in June of a nonbinding resolution calling for the city's schools to add the Muslim holidays to the calendar.

Bloomberg, who has the final say in designating days off for city schools, opposed the measure, saying that the city's children can't afford to miss more school. He said days off are given only when there's "a very large number of kids who practice," because keeping school open on those days presents administrative difficulties. Muslim holidays, Bloomberg said, don't present that obstacle.

According to a bill currently before the state Senate that would declare the two Muslim holidays school holidays in the city, "Muslims constitute approximately 10 percent of the student body in the New York City School District."

In neighboring New Jersey, Mike Yaple, spokesman for the state's School Boards Association, said most of the roughly nine districts in the Garden State that decided to close schools for Muslim holidays used the same rationale as Bloomberg.

"Usually when a decision is made to close a school, it's more of a factor of the community's demographic. For instance, a school might close on Rosh Hashanah or Good Friday because a sizable number of students won't be attending school that day or a lot of teachers won't be there that day," Yaple told FoxNews.com.

"South Brunswick just recently decided they're going to close for two Islamic holidays and one Hindu holiday. The county in which South Brunswick is in has the highest concentration of Asians -- 19 percent -- in the state."

In Dearborn, Mich., where schools are closed on both the day before and the day of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, the predominantly-Muslim football team has switched its two-a-day summer practice schedule to 11 p.m. to 4 a.m. during Ramadan, so that Muslim players -- who fast while the sun is up – won't be forced to practice in the heat without drinking water.

The move received little backlash in Dearborn, because most of the football players are Muslims. But syndicated columnist and Fox News contributor Cal Thomas says he doesn't see Christian students getting similar accommodations around the country.

"It is instructive to me that schools are going out of their way to discriminate against Christians by denying them the right to voluntarily pray with coaches and other players before games, but those same schools bend over backwards to accommodate Muslim student athletes for Ramadan," Thomas told FoxNews.com.

"This is worse than a double standard. It is singling out one religion and giving it priority over all others. And that is, or ought to be, unconstitutional."

The debate heats up in areas where schools are accommodating much smaller Muslim populations.

In Maryland, Anne Arundel County recently decided to ban sporting events on the night before Muslim holidays, as well as tests administered on the holidays themselves – even though Muslim leaders estimate the Muslim population comprises less than 2 percent of the 521,000 residents of the county.

Rudwan Abu-Rumman, President of the Anne Arundel County Muslim Council, says Muslim students should not be forced to miss exams or school events in order to celebrate their holidays.

"We've been working on that for two years now and thank God we got that," Abu-Rumman told FoxNews.com.

The council never asked the schools to be closed on the Muslim holidays, Abu-Rumman said, "because the percentage of Muslim students is very little, so that wouldn't be fair to close the school for us."

Peter Huessy a member of the Maryland Taxpayers Association Board of Directors, says the accommodations are still too much.

"I have no problem with someone if they've got a religious holiday and can't take a test, OK, take the test another time, but to inconvenience everyone else and say no tests and no sports is ridiculous," Huessy told FoxNews.com. "...If you're an Orthodox Jew and can't drive on the Sabbath, they don't cancel football. Either you walk to practice or your game, or you choose not to go. That's your choice."

The biggest issue, Huessy says, it that each "crazy" request that's accommodated encourages more extensive requests in the future.

"If communities cave once, they'll cave again and again," he said. "...What's next? No school during the whole month of Ramadan?" 

In Baltimore, which has refrained for years from scheduling tests on Muslim holidays, the city's Muslim leaders say they want more.

"Many of our students are really go-getters and don't want to miss a class because, even though it's an excused absence, that would give them imperfect attendance, and it's an extra chore for them to catch up on the day that they took off," Bash Pharoan, president of American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee's Baltimore Chapter, told FoxNews.com. "That's the dilemma our community has."

Pharoan says he is fighting to ensure that schools don't administer tests on the day after the holidays, either, so Muslims won't have to worry about studying during their observance. And even though he estimates Muslims comprise only 3 to 5 percent of the student body, Pharoan says ultimately he wants to see the district close on those days.

"We want our sons and daughters to feel as American as anyone else and to be on equal footing as everyone else," he said. "And of course religiously, family-wise, it's really important for families to celebrate their holidays together. That's part of nurturing young sons and daughters."

But Bloomberg says closing schools for religious holidays when only a small percentage of the students and faculty observe the holiday can open the floodgates to requests and backlash from other minority religions who want their holidays off as well.

"One of the problems you have with a diverse city is that if you close the schools for every single holiday, there won't be any school," he said.

In Burlington, Vt., the school board persuaded the Champlain Valley Superintendents Association, which determines the school calendar for roughly eight districts, to allow schools to declare holidays on Eid al-Fitr and Yom Kippur – even though the schools could functionally stay open on the Muslim holiday.

Burlington Superintendent Jeanne Collins said having the Muslim students miss school on their holiday negatively impacts student achievement.

"Our Muslim population is largely a refugee population of recent arrival refugees; that also adds to a complication of English not being their native language. So again missing school does have a significant impact on their learning," she said.

But the change has already triggered requests from the area's small Hindu community to have one of its holidays off, she said, and she "absolutely" fears a domino effect of requests from other minority religions could be on the way.

"At this time, not having a Hindu population whose attendance is affected by absences, the board is not taking any action on that request," Collins said. "It's very important to stress again that the decision of the board is not stressing or recognizing any holiday for any religious reasons but that the actions of the board are focused on student achievement."

When Muslims in Hillsborough County, Fla., pushed for a day off to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, the Hindu community there also started pushing for a day off to celebrate a Hindu holiday. The school board responded by dropping its days off for all religious holidays, but later reinstated days off for Good Friday, the Monday after Easter and Yom Kippur after thousands of e-mails protesting the move poured in from around the country, and the Muslim community leaders requested the days off be returned to the school calendar.

In Irvington, N.J., Assistant Superintendent Martin Dickerson said the district decided to close schools on the Muslim holidays even though they could functionally stay open, and they have received no negative response.

Dickerson said he couldn't give an estimate of how many Muslim students were in the school system and said the district's decision to close was "more about inclusion" than necessity.

"It's more acceptable now in the United States in terms of observing Muslim holidays," Dickerson told FoxNews.com. "We have a lot more Muslims than we had 20 years ago and I've worked in three other schools that observe Muslim holidays, so I think it's about being respectful and being inclusive of other faiths."

Bradley Blakeman, a professor of public policy and politics at Georgetown University, says the best thing school districts can do is tailor their calendars and holiday accommodations to the wants and needs of their communities.

"A school should reflect the beliefs and practices of the community that they serve. And if school boards are sensitive to their populations, that's fine, provided the decisions of the board reflect the majority opinion of its community," Blakeman told FoxNews.com.

"That's the beauty of having a school district responsive to the localities as opposed to blanket rules that affect multiple jurisdictions, states or even countries. One size doesn't fit all when it comes to these kinds of rules and regulations. We're not a homogeneous nation, which makes us so great."

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