Muslim community pushes to close schools on two holy days

At nearly every Baltimore County school board meeting for the past decade, Dr. Bash Pharoan has testified for his allotted three minutes about a single issue: the calendar.

The Muslim physician, whose children attended county schools, wants the school system to close for two Muslim holidays a year when they fall on school days. He says he is seeking parity with Christians and Jews, who get several holidays off from school.

So far, his persistence has not paid off. No board member had commented on the issue for years in what Pharoan describes as a "code of silence." Then there was a glimmer of hope last month when Michael Collins, the board's contrarian member, suggested that perhaps the board should consider noting on its 2015-2016 calendar that Yom Kippur and the Islamic holy day Eid al-Adha both fall on Sept. 23. The change would be a purely symbolic gesture.

A short, heated debate erupted. Pharoan stood up during the debate to make sure the board members remembered him.

"I know my heart rate went up to 120. I felt quite emotional. I did not really cry, but it was close. This was the first time in so many years that I felt someone on the board was willing to speak up for our community," he said. Once again, he did not get what he wanted, though the board's policy committee is studying the issue.

Pharoan is not alone in his efforts to have schools recognize Islamic holy days. Montgomery County Muslims have also asked for the days off and a small number of communities around the country are closing schools on the holy days. New York City's mayor pledged to close school on Islamic holy days during his campaign, and a united Muslim community is now pushing for action on the issue.

From the Baltimore County board's perspective, the issue is not about religion, but is rather a purely secular question. Schools close for the Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter Monday, as well as the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, not to celebrate those holidays, but because so many staff and students would stay home, the board has said. The schools would have to hire substitutes for teachers who were absent and teachers would have to repeat lessons for the students who had missed them.

In his remarks before the board, Pharoan often tells the members that their practices are discriminatory.

"I resent that for five years I have been called a bigot," said Lawrence Schmidt, a former school board president who has been a member of the board throughout that time.

Schmidt said he respects Pharoan's right to speak. "I admire his persistence," Schmidt said. "I think he is completely wrong in his arguments."

In Montgomery County, a group of Muslims founded Equality for Eid two years ago to advocate closing for the Islamic holy days.

"It is a matter for asking for equal rights. It is not that we want to be treated differently. We want to be treated equally," said Zainab Chaudry, co-founder and chair of the Maryland office of the Council on American Islamic Relations, which is leading the effort in Montgomery. Chaudry said she has received complaints from Baltimore County parents but has not been in touch with Pharoan.

The U.S Census does not compile data to detail how many Muslims live in Montgomery and Baltimore counties, but Chaudry said she believes those counties and Howard County have the largest populations of Muslim students in the state. Her organization has estimated, based on attendance at mosques, that Muslims represent about 10 percent of the Montgomery County population. Most Muslim parents send their students to public schools, she said.

Several school systems across the United States, including Dearborn, Mich., and Cambridge, Mass., close for the Islamic holidays.

Dearborn has closed its schools for about the past 15 years, said David Mustonen, director of communications for the Dearborn school system. About 50 percent to 60 percent of the 19,500 students in the schools are Muslim, he said, and the decision to close was an effort to be responsive to the community.

An American Religious Identification Survey found that in 2008, there were 1.3 million Muslims in the nation. Each Friday, about 1,800 to 2,000 adults come to the Islamic Society of Baltimore, located in Catonsville, to pray. The number more than doubles on holy days, according to Maqbool Patel, former president of the Islamic Society.

Most school districts, including Baltimore County's, will give Muslim students an excused absence on their religious holidays, but Chaudry says parents, many of them immigrants, are reluctant to take their children out for the day because they place great value on education and don't want them to miss lessons.

Montgomery County school officials have said they must see evidence of a high absentee rate during the Muslim holidays before they will take action, but just how high is not clear. Baltimore County officials say attendance did not dip on a Muslim holy day last year or the year before.

"There is no evidence that we are suffering excessive rates of absenteeism [of students and teachers] because of being open on Muslim holidays," said Schmidt.

Chaudry said the only way the Muslim community will be able to prove there are enough students to warrant a school holiday is if parents keep their children at home those days, something her organization told parents to do last fall.