Should public schools close for Muslim holidays?

School districts debate closing school for holidays observed by a growing number of students. As Eid al-Adha approaches, how will schools observe the holiday? 

Raad Adayleh/AP/File
Worshippers attend the Eid al-Fitr prayers in Amman, Jordan in July 2015. Muslim advocates in the US are appealing to public schools to add Islamic holidays to the calendar.

Public schools in the US close in observance of Christian holidays including Christmas and Easter, and now other religious denominations are asking for their holidays to be respected, too.  

This Thursday is Eid al-Adha, or Feast of the Sacrifice, one of the biggest holidays of the year for Muslims, and school administrators must decide whether or not to close school for the day.

In New Jersey, where almost 2 percent of the population identifies as Muslim, several school districts have recognized Islam's holidays for years, reports NorthJersey.com. But some are holding back.

The Jersey City school board voted last week not to name Eid al-Adha a public holiday, saying that it was “too short notice for parents to make arrangements if school was closed," though students will be excused if they are not in school on Thursday. 

"Despite the outcome, I believe the discussion reaffirmed our commitment to recognizing and honoring the rich cultural and religious diversity of the Jersey City community," said Jersey City Schools Superintendent Marcia Lyles in an interview with NJ.com. "We will continue to engage the entire Jersey City community in this important conversation."

Clifton, N.J. public schools discussed adding Islamic holidays to the school calendar in 2010. "We have 67 different languages spoken in Clifton homes and we have many different ethnic groups," said James Daly, president of Clifton's Board of Education. "Once you start making accommodations for one group, where do you draw the line?" he asked.

While the school district closes in observance of Jewish holidays Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it still has not added any Muslim holidays to its calendar.

Public schools in Illinois and Virginia, the two states with the largest per capita Muslim populations, have shown less responsiveness.

Illinois's largest school district, Chicago, does not recognize any religious holidays, while the second largest district notes Jewish holidays but does not close for them, and does not note Muslim holidays.

In March, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that, for the first time, New York City public schools would close in observance of Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr during the 2015-2016 school year.

"We made a pledge to families that we would change our school calendar to reflect the strength and diversity of our city," he said in a press release. "Hundreds of thousands of Muslim families will no longer have to choose between honoring the most sacred days on their calendar or attending school. This is a common sense change, and one that recognizes our growing Muslim community and honors its contributions to our City.”

For Muslims, it signals acceptance. "When these holidays are recognized, it’s a sign that Muslims have a role in the political and social fabric of America," said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, to the New York Times.

As a nation that prides itself on religious freedom, "There is no reason to categorically reject Muslims’ requests for these sorts of accommodations when Jews’ and Christians’ requests are often accepted," argues the Washington Post’s Eugene Volokh.

Other groups have requested recognition in official school calendars, too, increasing the pressure on school administrators to balance a celebration of diversity with the need to keep students in the classroom a set number of days each year.

"Asian-Americans have long requested the observance of the Lunar New Year (mid-February), and Hindu populations push for their major festival, Diwali, to be recognized," noted the Christian Science Monitor's Samantha Laine earlier this year

"We are committed to having a school calendar that reflects and honors the extraordinary diversity of our students," said New York Department of Education spokeswoman Yuridia Peña in a statement. "Adding new holidays to the calendar is a goal that poses some logistical challenges and we are actively working toward overcoming them."

[Editor's note: An earlier version of this article cited as true a story later discovered to be satirical. The reference has been removed.]

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