- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The Baltimore County Board of Education is expected tonight to reject calls from a Muslim group to add two Islamic holidays to the proposed 2006-07 school calendar.

The board is expected to adopt the recommendations of a subcommittee that found countywide attendance does not drop enough on Muslim holidays to justify closures. Instead, the subcommittee recommends that the district note the holidays on the calendar and teach students about their significance.

Muslims across the nation are pushing for public school closings on Islamic holy days, succeeding in Dearborn, Mich., and in four jurisdictions in New Jersey — a handful of districts that are the exceptions to the rule.

School officials in Hillsborough County, Fla., ran afoul of practically every religious sect in October when they canceled days off for three Jewish and Christian holidays rather than close for any Muslim holidays.

Public outcry forced school board members to reverse their decision on the Jewish and Christian holidays, and the district remains open on Muslim holidays.

Baltimore County Muslims point out that schools close for two Jewish holidays.

“The recommendation tells everyone that the board has fear of Muslims, and it is unfair,” said Bash Pharoan, president of the Baltimore County Muslim Council.

Jewish leaders say Mr. Pharoan is attempting to politicize the school calendar, which schedules closures only for holidays that cause low attendance rates countywide.

“There are individuals trying to create friction between the Muslim and Jewish communities, and Mr. Pharoan is one of them,” said Arthur C. Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council.

Mr. Pharoan said his group, which has about 100 members, seeks “equal treatment” for the county’s approximately 40,000 Muslims. “Our students really feel left behind,” he said.

But school board member Luis E. Borunda, chairman of the subcommittee that made the recommendations, said the rules are being applied evenly.

“Attendance is not impacted currently,” he said of the Muslim holidays. “It has nothing to do with taking a preference of one religion over another religion. It has everything to do with seeing our children are receiving an adequate education.”

The Muslim group wants county schools closed for Eid al-Adha, which marks the end of the yearly pilgrimage to Mecca, and Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan, the month of fasting. In the upcoming school year, Eid al-Fitr falls on Oct. 24 and Eid al-Adha on Dec. 31.

The county’s public schools close on Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year celebration, and Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, both early fall holidays.

The school system does not track the religious affiliation of students, but school officials say attendance records indicate limited absenteeism on Muslim holidays.

The county had about 70,000 Jewish residents in 1999, according to a study cited by the Baltimore Jewish Council.

Although estimates of Jewish and Muslim populations vary greatly, most surveys show about twice as many Jews as Muslims in the Baltimore area and the D.C. suburbs. The numbers nationally, however, are much closer.

A 2000 study by the American Religion Data Archive estimated that the United States had 5.7 million Jews and 4.6 million Muslims.

In and around the District, that study indicated, there were about 276,000 Jews and 157,000 Muslims.

Prince George’s County is the only county in the region to list Ramadan or Eid al-Adha on its school calendar, but the schools are open those days. Christmas and Easter also are listed, and the schools are closed during those holidays.

Prince George’s, Montgomery, Howard and Anne Arundel public schools and county government offices close for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Montgomery County, on its official school calendar, lists Christmas, Easter, Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana as religious holidays.

Schools in the District, Alexandria, and Fairfax and Loudoun counties list no religious holidays on their calendars, but the campuses are closed for breaks that coincide with Christian holidays and some Jewish holidays.

“If one set of religious holidays is observed, another faith should be accommodated as well,” said Ibrahim Hooper of the District-based Council on American-Islamic Relations, which supports Mr. Pharoan’s position. “The bottom line is equal treatment for all faiths.”

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