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School calendar will be strictly secular

Hillsborough School Board members vote to end vacation days for all religious holidays.

Published October 26, 2005

TAMPA - Her voice small and hesitant, 11-year-old Rahma Elmohd told Hillsborough School Board members Tuesday night that she "would like it a lot" if students could get one day off for a Muslim holiday.

It was not to be.

Nearly a year after local Muslims first asked that an Islamic holiday be recognized by the school district - just like Yom Kippur for Jews and Good Friday for Christians - board members voted to end vacation days for all religious holidays.

The board approved a 2006-07 calendar that substitutes three secular vacation days for three Christian and Jewish holidays. The vote was 5-1. Board member Carol Kurdell was absent.

About 50 Muslims, many of them women and girls wearing scarves, attended the packed meeting. They said they were disappointed and saddened by the board's vote but will continue to ask for recognition. Several said they worry about a backlash against Muslims.

"We feel like this is an extreme measure," said Ahmed Bedier, Florida director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "We can't say it enough, especially to Christian and Jewish folks, our brothers and sisters in faith: This was not our doing, and we didn't ask for it."

The approved calendar eliminates vacation days coinciding with Yom Kippur, Good Friday and the Monday after Easter. The days will be replaced with time off on Washington's Birthday in February and two days near the end of the school year, which will give students and teachers a four-day weekend.

The calendar is similar to the one used in Pinellas County, which does not time vacation days with religious observances.

The only religious holiday remaining on next year's calendar in Hillsborough is Christmas, which occurs during the district's winter break.

The calendar changes were recommended by a district committee after Bedier asked that Eid al-Fitr - the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan - be included.

Most board members said the secular school calendar is fair because it clearly separates church and state.

School Board member Carolyn Bricklemyer called the approved calendar appropriate. "I think we have accommodated people the best we can," she said.

Bricklemyer was a board member in 2001 when Hillsborough became the first Tampa Bay area school district to recognize a Jewish holiday with a day off.

On Tuesday, she said that was a mistake because it opened the door for other religious groups to request vacation days.

"We should not have done that," Bricklemyer said.

Jennifer Faliero was the only board member to vote against the calendar, saying her colleagues were moving toward suppressing religious expression.

Faliero dismissed School Board attorney Tom Gonzalez's opinion that recognizing religious holidays violates the Constitution.

"Why can't we recognize Eid?" Faliero asked. "I just don't get it."

Audience members applauded.

Before the meeting, Bedier and Chuck Leigh, president of the Florida Council of Churches, held a news conference at the School Administrative Center criticizing the board's stance.

"I think the School Board is doing this for no other reason than to avoid giving a holiday to the Muslims," said Leigh, pastor of the Apostolic Catholic Church in Tampa. "Any other reason is eyewash, and I don't think it fools any of us."

Board member Doretha Edgecomb bristled at accusations that the board was ending all religious holidays to avoid supporting Muslims.

"This is a board of integrity," she said. "We take our jobs seriously. This is not a calendar of oppression. This is not a calendar of denial."

Said board Chairwoman Candy Olson, "I think what we're doing is putting (religion) between parents and children and their community of faith."

The new calendar will allow excused absences for religious observances and will not cost students credit toward perfect attendance awards or exam exemptions. Teachers are asked not to schedule tests or major activities on holidays.

After the vote, dozens of Muslims knelt and prayed toward Mecca outside the building as part of their sunset ritual of Ramadan. Afterward, they ate wraps, fruit and dates in the superintendent's conference room to end their daily fast.

Some board members and administrators joined them.

"You can't be angry," Bedier said. "We have agreed to disagree. There is a calendar vote every year. We'll be back next year."

[Last modified October 26, 2005, 00:56:16]

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