An unwavering push for Muslim school holidays

Man's decade of work faces obstacles, including law

April 23, 2007|By Gina Davis | Gina Davis,Sun Reporter

Bash Pharoan sees his long-running campaign to close Baltimore County's schools on Muslim holidays as a demand for fairness: If schools are shut down on Yom Kippur and Christmas Day, they also should be closed on Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.

He first advanced this idea a decade ago, and despite significant obstacles - including state law that prohibits schools from closing solely for religious reasons - he has not backed off. In his latest push, Pharoan e-mailed about 250 area Muslims to encourage them to attend tomorrow's county school board meeting.

He said the show of solidarity would be an appeal to Superintendent Joe A. Hairston, who is expected to propose a 2008-2009 calendar at the board's May 8 meeting. The board is expected to vote in June on the calendar.

"I'm asking our community to be visible, to have courage," Pharoan, president of the Baltimore chapter of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said in an interview last week. "If, as a community, we wait until next month when the superintendent proposes a calendar without the holiday, it's already too late and the decision will already have been made."

Despite Pharoan's persistence - he has hardly missed a school board meeting in years, and he has convinced some on the system's calendar committee - he may have a hard time prevailing in his pursuit. The law, some experts say, doesn't appear to be on his side.

Rochelle S. Eisenberg, an attorney who has represented superintendents and school boards across the state, said schools may close for a religious holiday only for "secular reasons." For example, she said, schools may close if so many teachers are absent that administrators can't find enough substitutes to cover classes.

"There are many religious holidays that all deserve respect. But there has to be a secular reason to close schools," she said. "When the day comes that Baltimore County has so many Muslim students and/or teachers that there would be an adverse impact on attendance, then the school district could legally consider closing schools."

For school officials, community leaders and Muslim advocates, the debate illustrates the delicate task of striking a balance between respecting religious freedom and abiding by a legal obligation that bars public schools from endorsing any religion.

"This is not a case of disrespect or a lack of reverence for any religion; it's a matter of law," said Donald L. Arnold, president of the county's school board. "This is not a matter of equity, as far as you get yours and we get ours."

Marvin Wingfield, educational director for the Washington-based American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said he has fielded calls from school systems across the country that are grappling with this issue.

He said the group doesn't expect schools to be closed for a relatively small Muslim community. Instead, he said, school officials should make "reasonable accommodations," such as avoid scheduling tests during religious holidays and allow excused absences - both of which Baltimore County school officials do.

"There has to be a more nuanced approach that meets the needs of the community without unduly putting pressure on school system schedules," he said.

State law requires that schools be closed from Christmas Eve through Jan. 1, and the Friday before and Monday after Easter to avoid widespread absenteeism.

Baltimore County schools have closed for the Jewish observances of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur since 1995, said schools spokeswoman Kara Calder. She said the decision, which predates her tenure, was based on concerns about student and staff attendance on those days.

Because the system can't ask about religious affiliations, the district doesn't have statistics on how many students or teachers might be absent if schools were open on the Jewish holidays.

The soft-spoken Pharoan, a surgeon whose three adult sons attended Baltimore County schools, said he started going to school board meetings in the mid-1980s when his youngest son was in the third grade at Pot Spring Elementary in Timonium. Since then, he has taken board members and school officials to task on several occasions. Among other complaints, he has accused them of ignoring his e-mails and phone calls, and teaching inaccuracies about Islam in social studies classes.

This year, he severely criticized the board for changing its policy on public comments, saying that a recently adopted lottery system to determine who may address the panel would stifle criticism of education policies.

He said he continues to relentlessly pursue these issues because he hopes to gain changes for his grandchildren and countless other children to come.

"This is for all the kids, not just Muslims," he said. "There are other communities that I have my eye on that need to be represented in an appropriate way."

As for the holiday debate, he contends that schools should close for all religious observances or none of them.

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