Religious Observances Should Be Respected

Dec 11

Tampa Tribune, 11/6/06

The Hillsborough County School Board’s recent vote to drop Christian and Jewish holidays from the school calendar creates a very negative precedent for reasonable religious accommodation in the state’s education system. The Council on American- Islamic Relations, which has been at the forefront of the Muslim community’s efforts to have Islamic religious holidays accommodated, is disappointed at the school board’s decision to ban all religious holidays, save Christmas.

Because the removal of religious holidays came on the heels of the Muslim community’s request for inclusion of their religious holiday, we call on the board to reinstate the Christian and Jewish holidays, even if it means not granting Muslims their reasonable request.

Our faith teaches us to love for others what we love for ourselves. We would love to have our holiday recognized in the school calendar along-side the holidays of people of other faiths. Yet it makes no sense to us that Christians and Jews should be penalized just because Muslims are seeking their rightful place within the fabric of our nation’s multifaith society.

For many years the school board calendar matched vacation days with religious holidays. Such holidays were called “nonstudent/non- teacher days” to avoid the perception of violating the establishment clause of the Constitution. This meant that schools were closed on Christian and Jewish holidays like Good Friday and Yom Kippur.

The school board, in deciding to ban Christian and Jewish holidays, invoked the separation of church and state as the basis of its decision. Concerns over church-state separation were not an issue until late last year, when Muslim parents requested that the school board accommodate the Islamic holiday of Eid Al-Fitr, or festival of the fast-breaking, which celebrates the end of Ramadan. During the Islamic calendar month of Ramadan, Muslims fast each day from dawn to dusk by refraining from food, drinks and sensual pleasures.American Muslims are recognized both by the U.S. government and the state of Florida as a major religious community. In 2001 the U.S. Postal Service recognized Eid Al-Fitr as part of America’s religious tradition by having a postage stamp issued in its honor. Since 2000, President Bush has marked the month of Ramadan by hosting an official Iftar (fast- breaking) ceremony at the White House. This year Iftar ceremonies were held at the U.S Treasury and the State Department. In Florida, Gov. Jeb Bush regularly issues official statements recognizing the start of Ramadan as well as Eid Al-Fitr.

The First Amendment clause stating that government shall make no laws “respecting an establishment of religion” ensures that expressions of faith are not coerced by the state. It was never designed to bar religious expression or place hardships on people who want to celebrate their religious traditions.

Allowing students to mark Eid Al- Fitr, Good Friday or Yom Kippur with their families does not imply establishment of any one religion and does not infringe upon the citizenship rights of others. These reasonable accommodations are merely a concrete demonstration of our nation’s rich religious diversity.

Many Muslims are asking themselves whether newly discovered constitutional concerns are merely a smoke screen to hide anti-Muslim prejudice.While a debate over the establishment clause is certainly welcome, what is unacceptable is the associated call for religious exclusivism. During a brief segment on the topic, talk show host Bill O’Reilly called it “absurd” for members of non-Judeo- Christian religions to expect school districts or other government entities to cater to their holiday schedules.America, he said, was founded as a Judeo-Christian nation.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Brian Blair said that Muslim holidays should not be recognized and that anyone who does not like “American” holidays should find another place to live.

The school board’s arbitrary and extreme ruling only serves to increase hostility toward Muslims, who will be unfairly blamed for the loss of all religious holidays.American Muslims are seeking to be included, not to marginalize all faiths. Give Christian and Jewish students their holidays, even if Muslim students are denied theirs.

Parvez Ahmed is the chairman of the board for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a civil liberties and advocacy group (E-mail:

Ahmed Bedier is director for CAIR’s Central Florida office in Tampa (E-mail:

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