Muslim leader continues effort over holidays

Balto. Co. surgeon began in 1990s to seek Eid al-Fitr school closures


The feast with which Muslims will celebrate the end of Ramadan will be bittersweet once again for Dr. Bash Pharoan.

The president of the Baltimore County Muslim Council has campaigned for years to have the county public schools close in recognition of Eid al-Fitr, as they did last month for the Jewish holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, so that Muslim children can observe one of the most important holidays in Islam without missing class.

But despite his regular attendance at school board meetings, his repeated pleas to officials and his membership in the committee that worked to develop next year's calendar, the schools are scheduled to open this morning for business as usual.

"It's a matter of fairness," said Pharoan, a Baltimore-area surgeon with three sons. "The rules should apply for Christians, Jews and Muslims. The school system is really discriminating against our sons and daughters based on their religion."

Baltimore County, where school officials say they inherited the calendar that grants the Jewish holidays and are concerned that adding more days off would affect their educational mission, is one of several systems in the state where a growing Muslim population is pressing for greater recognition. Across the nation, the public-school calendar is emerging as a new arena for those seeking equal treatment in American society.

The system does not ask about or keep statistics on the religious affiliations of its students. Among the general population of Baltimore County, Christians are in the majority, according to the American Religion Data Archive at the Pennsylvania State University. Jews outnumber Muslims by more than 5 to 1.

"It's happening in pockets where there are different groups," said University of Dayton professor Charles Russo, the author of the textbook Reutter's The Law of Public Education. "I do think it's going to be a national issue increasingly as the country grows more diverse."

Results have been mixed. Large Muslim communities in such states as Michigan and New Jersey have won closings in some of their districts. The school board of Hillsborough, Fla., attracted national attention last week when members responded to requests to close schools on Muslim holidays by ending the practice there of granting days off for Yom Kippur and the Christian observance of Good Friday.

"What we'd really like to avoid is what we've seen down in Florida," said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington. "We try to avoid that because, naturally, we want others to celebrate their religious holidays, but also, it puts Muslim parents and students in the position of being blamed for the loss of long-standing accommodations for other students."

CAIR, the largest Muslim civil rights group in the United States, does not advocate specifically for school closings but lobbies for accommodations equal to those of other religious beliefs.

"I'm sure that the Jewish community went through this at one point, and there may be other communities that go through this in the future," Hooper said. "The point is that one standard be applied to all faiths, and that one faith or another not be given preferential treatment and the accommodation be denied for another."

Efforts to close public schools for religious holidays are testing the tension between the right to freedom of religious practice and the separation of church and state. Courts have ruled that though public schools may not be closed for religious reasons, they may be closed if attendance would be so low that they would be unable to carry on as normal.

In Maryland, state law guarantees the right of individuals to miss school for religious reasons, but students can be marked absent for any days they are out.

A statewide task force has recommended that the State Department of Education approve two floating holidays that students may use to avoid being penalized.

Complicating the matter further in the case of Eid al-Fitr, the feast that ends Muslim fasting during the holy month of Ramadan, is the difficulty of pinpointing the start of the holiday in advance. It begins with the sighting of the first crescent that follows the new moon, which might come today or tomorrow.

In Baltimore County, Pharoan began asking for the schools to close for Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, the holiday that marks the end of the pilgrimage to Mecca, in the mid-1990s. After a period of disillusionment, he returned to the issue early last year.

Through the Baltimore County Muslim Council, he issued an "action alert" last week calling on Muslim parents to keep their children home on Eid, to call and visit schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston - bringing Eid cards and sweets - and to attend a school board meeting next week.

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