Muslim holiday debate turns heated at H-W board meeting

School district removes Eid al Fitr, Eid al Adha from proposed 2018-19 calendar

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UPDATE: The Herald covered both the Jan. 10 and Jan. 17 Hewlett-Woodmere Board of Education meetings that focused on whether the school district would add the Muslim holidays of Eid al-Fitr and Eid Al Adha to its calendar as days off.

After nearly four hours of comments from the public, the Hewlett-Woodmere BOE voted to approve the third iteration of the 2018-2019 school year calendar, which does not include a day off for Eid al-Fitr.

“The common reason for discomfort in adding the Eid holidays was a lack of confidence in having a strong enough secular purpose for adding the holiday,” said Board President Scott McInnes. He stressed that the decision was influenced by discussions with legal counsel, not by comments made by the public last week, and that they could reconsider the holidays should a reason arise. One of the reasons given for not adding the holiday was too many students staying home to celebrate.

The following story is on the Jan. 10 meeting that is in the Jan. 18 Herald. A comprehensive story on the Jan. 17 meeting will be in the Jan. 25 Herald.

Emotions ran high when roughly 200 parents, students, alumni and residents attended a three-hour Hewlett-Woodmere Board of Education work session on Jan. 10, at which trustees decided against including the Muslim holidays of Eid al Fitr and Eid al Adha on the 2018-19 school calendar.

Eid al Fitr marks the end of Ramadan, when Muslims fast during the day. On Eid al Fitr, they feast with family members and friends after a morning prayer, and children often receive gifts in honor of the good deeds they performed during Ramadan. Eid al Adha marks the end of the Hajj, or trip to Mecca, when family and friends gather to reflect on family values and sacrifice.

Each year, the holidays fall about 11 days earlier than the year before, because the Islamic calendar follows a lunar calendar. Deputy Superintendent Dr. Mark Secaur enumerated the days that would be affected by the proposed implementation plan, from the 2018-19 to 2022-23 school years. Occasionally, the holidays will fall on weekends or over summer vacations during that time. A total of four days over the five years would be affected.

The school year is 184 days long, and with a growing number of other Long Island districts including the days among their holidays, the board thought it might be time to do the same. “The rationale for us to include this holiday is that we have an increasing number of Muslim students within our schools,” Secaur said. “Their holidays are not included in our calendar . . . and perhaps most importantly, we don’t want students to have to choose between their holy day and their studies.”

Shahnaz Mallik, who has a grandchild in the district, began submitting petitions to the district last February. She collected more than 200 signatures on one of them, but many residents objected to the fact that a majority of the signatures were from people outside the district.

Mallik had also spoken on the issue several times at previous board meetings. “Many Muslims at many schools in this district should have the same opportunity and respect that students of other faiths have,” she said. “Muslim students should be able to celebrate their most holy days of Eid without having to worry about missing any schoolwork.”

Debi Sheinin, a Central Council PTA co-president, addressed the difficulty of adding holidays to the school calendar. Many other opponents of the proposed change followed her. “Tonight is about what we are legally allowed to do,” she said. “American public schools are not constitutionally allowed to close for any religious reason . . . There is a practical secular reason for closing schools in some religious areas, in some areas where too many student and/or teacher absences make it difficult, if not impossible, to hold meaningful classes.”

The district’s attorney, John Gross, said that he would be comfortable going to court to defend the district’s decision to add the Muslim holidays to the calendar, noting that the Supreme Court has not ruled on the constitutionality of closing school on religious holidays.

Other attendees included Orthodox Christians who said they wanted Jan. 7 off — the day they observe Christmas.

A text message, forwarded to the Herald by several sources after the meeting, urged people to attend the session. The message read, in part, “Most importantly, observance of a Muslim holiday will draw other religious Muslims to the area, which eventually would make our houses value go down, as no decent person would want to buy a house next to that. The demographics will change and our properties will be worthless.”

It was uncertain how widely the message was circulated. But it raised concern about Islamophobia in the Hewlett-Woodmere area.

The meeting was tense. Board President Scott McInnes asked people to stop interrupting one another several times.

Hewlett High School senior Kevin Chacon, who said he was Catholic, said he had not planned to address the forum, but felt compelled to do so. His voice cracked as he spoke.

“When you all are making this decision, I think that you should think about the little boys and girls in the elementary schools that look at holidays like Christmas and Yom Kippur, and when they think about their own religion, they see that they don’t get [any days] off,” he said. “I can only imagine what they think.”

Several members of the Muslim community and other supporters made their case as well. The board members were set to meet again at their regular meeting on Wednesday, and present a revised calendar without Eid al Fitr and Eid al Adh.

Leaving the Jan. 10 meeting, Mallik said she would confer with the local Muslim community to determine the next course of action. “I was overwhelmed,” she said. “I came to these meetings so often, and it was mentioned, but I never got the sense of this much opposition.”

Have an opinion about adding holidays to a school calendar or the tone of the meeting rhetoric? Send your letter to the editor to jbessen@liherald.com.