Board Decision Revives Discussion About Religion In Public Schools One of the largest public school systems in the U.S. dropped religious affiliations for holidays on its school calendar. The decision represents a classic church and state battle.
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Board Decision Revives Discussion About Religion In Public Schools

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Board Decision Revives Discussion About Religion In Public Schools

Board Decision Revives Discussion About Religion In Public Schools

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

A big suburban school system outside Washington D.C. is dropping all mention of religious observance from its days off. Students in Montgomery County, Maryland will still get Christmas, Easter and Jewish holidays off, but officially, they'll now speak of winter break and spring break. From member station WAMU, Matt Bush reports this still hasn't ended a debate over how the district should handle religious holidays.

MATT BUSH, BYLINE: The path to the board's decision started about two years ago on something that was somewhat unrelated. Members of the county's Muslim community, roughly estimated at around 10 percent of the more than 1 million population, were seeking to have two of their religion's holy days added to the calendar of days off. They wanted Eid ul-Adha the most.

ZAINAB CHAUDRY: And that commemorates the sacrifice, the willingness of Prophet Abraham to sacrifice for the sake of his love for God.

BUSH: Zainab Chaudry is with the Equality for Eid Coalition, which is based in Montgomery County. The board decided against making Eid ul-Adha a day off after studying the absentee rate for that day last year. School officials said it was not much different than the rate for the average school day. Chaudry says many Muslim parents send their kids to school that day - something she experienced as a kid while attending school in the city of Baltimore.

CHAUDRY: My parents, during the youth holiday - they were very adamant that I not miss time from school.

BUSH: Next year, Eid ul-Adha falls on the same day as the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur, which Montgomery County schools take off. So Muslims asked for a symbolic gesture - that a mention of their holy day be put next to Yom Kippur on the official school calendar. Samira Hussein, who works for the county schools and has had four of her kids graduate from the system, calls it a token appreciation for Muslims.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SAMIRA HUSSEIN: Muslim students in Montgomery County have almost a hundred percent graduation rate. And they have been accepted to some of the top universities in the United States, which is great testimonial to our county's fine education system. These are your students. But Muslim students also need to feel a sense of belonging, recognition and respect for their contributions.

BUSH: The school superintendent responded by recommending the reference to Yom Kippur be dropped instead. When he presented it to the Board of Education, which has the final say, board members, in short order, approved removing all religious references by a 7 to 1 vote. Phil Kauffman is the board president.

PHIL KAUFFMAN: The best way to accommodate the diversity of our community is to not make choices about, you know, which communities we're going to respect in our calendar and which ones we're not going to respect.

BUSH: Nearly all of the 16 districts across the country that are larger than Montgomery County already dropped religious mentions on their calendars, including neighboring Fairfax County, Virginia, which did so several years ago. But the board's decision is starting anew decades-old arguments over the role of religion in public schools, and it seems to have satisfied very few people. Zainab Chaudry says this is not what she and other Muslims were seeking. They just wanted the symbolic recognition of one of their holidays on an official school calendar.

CHAUDRY: Taking this step, I think, would really help to reassure mainstream moderate Muslims in America that they are welcome, and they are part of society.

BUSH: Six school systems in the United States are off on Eid holidays and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's campaign pledged to make the city number seven. For NPR News, I'm Matt Bush.

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