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Schools may drop religious holidays

Rather than add a day off around Ramadan, days off around Easter and Yom Kippur may be eliminated.

Published October 7, 2005

TAMPA - There may be no day off next school year for the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. Also on the chopping block are vacation days for the Christian faith's Good Friday and the Monday after Easter.

After considering a request to recognize a Muslim school holiday, the Hillsborough County School Board next week will discuss ending student days off on all religious holidays, whether they be Christian, Jewish or Muslim.

The only religious holiday not affected will be Christmas, which occurs during the school district's winter break.

"From my initial look, it's a good way to respect diversity of all faiths," said board chairwoman Candy Olson.

There are numerous religions and even more holidays, said board member Jennifer Faliero. She asks how a school district can observe some and not others.

"It's in the best interest of schools not to coincide days off with too many holidays," Faliero said.

While educators said their proposed 2006-07 calendar will treat all faiths the same, some local Muslims fear a backlash from people angry about their holidays being converted to school days.

Parent Joan Zaki, who lobbied board members for greater acceptance of Islamic holidays, said it was not her intent to have everyone's holidays taken away.

"Muslims don't need any more negative attention than we're getting," said Zaki, the only Muslim and dissenting member of the district's calendar committee. "We were just trying to get equal treatment."

Zaki and Ahmed Bedier, with the Council on American-Islamic Relations, asked the board about a year ago to include a Muslim holiday in the calendar.

That request led to the recommendation before the School Board to substitute three secular holidays for Yom Kippur, Good Friday and Easter Monday.

The recommended calendar, which board members will discuss during a 9 a.m. workshop Wednesday at the School Administrative Center, includes a day off for Presidents Day, the Friday before spring break and for one day off between spring break and the last day of school.

Board members will take public comment at a later meeting when they vote on the calendar.

Some religious leaders said the school district needs to stop correlating its academic calendar with religious holidays.

"You've got to treat all religious holidays the same," said Jonathan Ellis, chair of the Jewish Community Center/Federation's community relations committee. "You can't make the determination that holidays for one religion are substantially more important than another religion."

And the elimination of a student day off, which has coincided with Yom Kippur or Rosh Hashana since 2001?

"I don't think Jewish holidays should be given priority," Ellis said.

But not everyone is pleased with the proposed changes.

Terry Kemple, former executive director for the Christian Coalition of Florida, said it's "definitely not a good thing."

"Probably the people most happy about it is the ACLU," Kemple said. "It's unfortunate the schools are leading the way in eliminating from people's storehouse of knowledge the Christian roots of our country."

Bing Elementary technology specialist George Burnash wrote an e-mail to Olson on Thursday, saying a calendar with no religious holidays is far from neutral.

"It actually results in quite a different effect - appearing hostile towards all religious faiths," he wrote. "And what about a day such as Good Friday, where you may end up with so many teachers taking the day off ... that you don't have enough teachers available in the classrooms?"

The school district does not officially give students days off for religious holidays, believing it is an unconstitutional mixing of church and state. But it schedules days off around some holidays, serving almost as de facto recognition.

The district included a floating day off for Yom Kippur in 2001, following the lead of several large school districts in Florida.

In January, School Board members put off a decision on adding a day off for Eid al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan. They agreed to study it for the 2006-07 year and asked the calendar committee to take a deeper look at all student vacation days. They also instructed administrators to list Muslim holidays in the district's calendar so teachers would not schedule tests, assignments and field trips on those days.

Students can take religious days off without penalty by giving proper notice to their schools.

Zaki said she still doesn't understand why the district can't add one floating day off for an Islamic holiday, as was done for Good Friday and Yom Kippur. She said it is only fair since the Muslim faith is one of the three major monotheistic religions.

"We were only asking for one day off from school just so we can feel special as a community," she said. "Instead, they were like, if we have to give it to Muslims, we'll give it to no one."

Melanie Ave can be reached 813 226-3400 or

[Last modified October 7, 2005, 01:49:15]

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