Accommodating all

April 29, 2007

Some Muslim groups want Baltimore County schools to close in recognition of two of their high holy days. A campaign has been waged for a decade to include the Muslim holidays on the official school calendar, but school officials have rightly refused.

As the calendar for the 2008-2009 school year is being prepared, the Muslim groups are continuing their push. But Maryland public schools are not supposed to close for religious holidays, although accommodations can and should be made for those who want to observe them.

State law designates certain public holidays when schools must close, such as Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve through New Year's Day. But the purpose is secular, not religious - such large numbers of students and teachers are absent that no significant instruction could take place.

As long as local districts keep schools open for the required number of instructional days, they can close schools at their discretion when similar education disruptions occur. Since 1995, Baltimore County school officials have made that determination regarding two Jewish holidays, Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana.

But it has yet to be shown that the absence of such a critical mass of Muslim students and teachers could effectively shut schools in many neighborhoods.

State policy allows students excused absences for a number of reasons, including religious observances. So Baltimore County's Muslim students can take their holidays without consequence. And many schools also try to accommodate students who may need to fast during the lunch period as part of their holiday observance.

Such tolerance and understanding point to the right way to resolve a contentious issue. A growing Muslim population and shifting demographics may well make it advisable at some time in the future to close schools for the two most sacred Muslim religious holidays. But that time has not yet come.

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