Christmas Day is a federal holiday in the United States, and children in public school traditionally have the day off too. That will be true on Friday, Dec. 25, in Montgomery County, Md., schools. But the C word won’t be mentioned. In a development that will surely revive complaints about a “war on Christmas,” the school board voted this week to eliminate references to religious holidays from its published calendar.
And as if this story weren’t already Bill O’Reilly bait, the genesis – we’d better say “origin” – of the new policy, according to the Washington Post, was “a request from Muslim community leaders to give equal billing to the Muslim holy day of Eid al-Adha.”
The Post explains the new policy:
“In practical terms, Montgomery schools will still be closed for the Christian and Jewish holidays, as in previous years, and students will still get the same days off, as planned.
“Board members said Tuesday that the new calendar will reflect days the state requires the system to be closed and that it will close on other days that have shown a high level of student and staff absenteeism. Though those days happen to coincide with major Christian and Jewish holidays, board members made clear that the days off are not meant to observe those religious holidays, which they say is not legally permitted.”
Christmas Day (despite its obvious religious significance) is a secular holiday, and it’s doubtful that the school district was violating the 1st Amendment by printing a calendar bearing the name “Christmas.” Lawsuit-averse school boards have a tendency to overinterpret court decisions about the separation of church and state.
The school board’s excision of “Christmas” (as well as “Yom Kippur” and “Rosh Hashanah”) from the calendar can be defended as a statement about the importance of religious neutrality in a multicultural school district. But it comes at the cost of tossing red reindeer meat to the “war on Christmas” crowd.
The Montgomery County school district notes on its website that it’s not unique in removing references to religious holidays from its calendar. But it still should have realized that the decision would create a firestorm.
My advice to the district would have been to add Muslim religious holidays to the calendar if significant numbers of students would be excused from classes on those days. The mere notation that an off day coincides with a religious holiday is not an unconstitutional establishment of religion.
Instead, the district has antagonized Christians, Jews and traditionalists without pleasing Muslims. Saqib Ali, a co-chair of the Equality for Eid Coalition, offered this reaction: “By stripping the names Christmas, Easter, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, they have alienated other communities now, and we are no closer to equality.”
But we are closer to another iteration of the “war on Christmas” debate. And we haven’t even had Thanksgiving.
Follow Michael McGough on Twitter @MichaelMcGough3