A group of Muslim parents, students and community activists is lobbying for the Baltimore County school board to close schools on their two most important religious holidays of the year.
If schools are closed Christmas and the Jewish High Holy Days, the group argues, it is only fair that they close on Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha as well. But amid cries for fairness and cultural sensitivity, others say closing schools on Muslim holidays would set a precedent the system would have to follow for any number of other religious and ethnic groups.
About 30 people turned out at a school board meeting Wednesday night to advocate closing schools on the holidays, whose dates - like those of Jewish holidays - change every year because they are determined by a lunar calendar. School system officials say they have also received about 40 e-mails and faxes.
Eid al-Fitr celebrates the end of Ramadan, a month of daytime fasting and reflection. Eid al-Adha, or feast of the sacrifice, celebrates the Quranic account of God letting Abraham sacrifice a sheep instead of his son.
"The kids want to be like everyone else, and they feel they are not," said Haider Thamir, a financial adviser from Cockeysville whose children attend Dulaney High School and Warren Elementary School.
District officials do not have figures on the number of Muslim students enrolled in Baltimore County schools because they are not allowed to ask for students' religious affiliation. No one is making the case that the number is overwhelming, but advocates say closing the schools on Muslim holidays would help promote cultural sensitivity and understanding.
"Maybe it would prompt people to ask, `What is Islam? How do you conduct your life?'" Thamir said.
But Randallstown community activist Ella White Campbell said she would rather see the school system continue to give Muslim students excused absences.
"Our students are already inundated with enough time off," said Campbell, who is chairwoman of Superintendent Joe A. Hairston's minority achievement advisory council, a group he has asked to advise him on this issue. "There needs to be more time in school. ... It sets a very dangerous precedent for the system."
Baltimore County schools began closing for the Jewish High Holy Days, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, in 1995. School system spokesman Douglas J. Neilson said the reasoning was practical, not religious: Schools were so empty that the district risked state sanctions for low attendance. It also could not get enough substitute teachers.
School system officials have been researching which districts close for the Muslim holidays, Neilson said. They found no district in Maryland that does.
The Howard County school system has confronted the same issue that is facing Baltimore County. Eileen Woodbury, Howard's equity assurance specialist, said that district has also had requests from Asian families to close school for the Lunar New Year.
Baltimore and Howard counties ask that teachers be sensitive in scheduling tests on religious holidays, officials said. Students observing the holidays get excused absences from classes and extracurricular activities.
In Baltimore County, the request to close on the two Muslim holidays will go first before the 21-member calendar committee appointed by Hairston. In response to concerns raised by those who favor the request, Hairston named Bash Pharoan, president of the Baltimore County Muslim Council, to the calendar committee Feb. 11.
The committee is set to deliver its recommended 2005-2006 school year calendar to the school board for a vote in the spring. The calendar for the 2004-2005 school year has already been set.