The Maryland State Board of Education last month upheld the Baltimore County School Board’s decision to keep schools closed on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur during the 2018-2019 school year.
Bash Pharoan, a member of the BCPS school calendar committee, filed an appeal to the state board of education arguing that the decision to keep schools closed on those Jewish holidays, which the system has done since 1995, was not done for secular reasons and therefore was illegal. He also argued that the system does not provide equal treatment to other ethnicities by not closing for their holidays.
The appeal came after the calendar committee recommended eliminating the Jewish holidays from the school calendar, but the BCPS board voted instead to keep them on the calendar, with an amendment to close schools for a professional development day that falls on the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr.
The state board of education in its March 20 decision stated that it could only rule on such quasi-legislative decisions as to whether the board acted within state and federal law. It ruled that the evidence given by the BCPS board demonstrated that high absences would be anticipated if schools were open on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which would be costly and disruptive to the school system, and that closing for such reasons was a secular and not a religious decision. The state board also said not closing for Muslim holidays did not constitute unequal treatment.
“No local board may close schools solely to recognize a religious holiday. There must instead be a secular purpose behind the decision to close,” the decision said. “Such a practice is religion-neutral in that it applies to all faiths and does not advance one particular religion over another. If a school system decides to close because of a high number of anticipated absences on a religious holiday, it does not mean that a school system is endorsing, recognizing or otherwise celebrating that particular religion. It also does not mean that a school system must close for all religious holidays.”
The decision also recognized the board’s decision to schedule a professional development day on Eid al-Fitr in 2019 and to more closely investigate teacher and student absences and impacts on the system for all religious holidays.
“In our view, the board’s adoption of the 2018-19 school calendar, which included closures on Jewish, Muslim and Christian holidays, was based on secular concerns and did not impermissibly endorse or hinder any particular faith,” the decision said. “We affirm the decision of the local board because it was not illegal.”
“The courts have made it clear that public schools are not permitted to close for religious reasons — only out of operational necessity. That’s why we focused all of our comments to the Baltimore County school board on issues such as teacher and student attendance and how that will impact learning and costs,” Libit said via email. “I am pleased that both the Baltimore County School Board and the state school board agreed that the impact of opening schools on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur would have a significant impact on the operations of the school system.”
In addition, Libit said that the BJC is “fully supportive of efforts to recognize the importance of other religious holidays, provided such efforts comply with the law,” he added. “The school board’s decision to place a teacher professional development day on Eid seems to be the right balance — Muslim students can celebrate their holiday without having to worry about missing school, and Muslim teachers will also be able to celebrate without having to worry about finding substitute teachers or missing critical time in the classroom.”