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Petition seeking recognition of Muslim holidays in schools fails

Muslims participate in the Eid al-Fitr p

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Muslims participate in the Eid al-Fitr prayers on September 10, 2010 at the Los Angeles Convention Center in downtown Los Angeles. Eid al-Fitr marks the day when Muslims worldwide celebrate the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.

A petition started by three middle-school students asking for recognition of Muslim religious holidays in public schools failed to garner enough signatures by its deadline today.

Last month, three Virginia teenaged girls posted the petition on WhiteHouse.gov's "We the People" page, asking for the recognition of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.

Eid, which is the Arabic word for festival, is a day that involves prayer, time with family and close friends - and plenty of gifts.

Eid al-Fitr, signifies the end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting. Eid al-Adha, which translates to "festival of sacrifice," comes after the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. Because the Islamic calendar is based on the lunar cycle, the holidays fall on a different date each year.

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"It's a happy day," said Fatimah, a seventh-grader and one of the petition authors. "If you're worrying you're going to have to miss school, then it just ruins the entire day.”

Another girl, eighth-grader Sumayyah, said she didn't want to have to choose between celebrating Eid and going to class. "We would like it that in every county where there is a substantial number of Muslims, schools take the day off," she said.

The three wrote the petition for a civics class assignment. The petition hosted by WhiteHouse.gov received more than 63,000 signatures before it expired Thursday afternoon. 100,000-signature were required to receive a response from the White House.

It's not the first effort of its kind.

MSA West, an organization comprised of Muslim student clubs from campuses all over the West Coast, initiated a campaign last October called “Know your Eid rights as a student.” The campaign encouraged Muslim students to ask teachers for the day off on Eid.

“I feel like there should be no choice for a Muslim student to choose between a religious holiday and going to class," said Haidar Anwar, president of MSA West. "That’s the key thing, that there should be no choice between that.”

Fatima Dadabhoy, civil rights manager and an attorney with the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Los Angeles, said she believes people should have the right to take the day off from work and school for a religious holiday.

A report released in December by CAIR-LA cites a Texas appeals court case, Church of God (Worldwide, Texas Region) v. Amarillo Independent School District:

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals determined that a school rule which limited excused absences for religious observance to only two days per year violated the free exercise rights of those students who were required, as members of the Church of God, to miss more than one week of school for religious observance. In that situation, school administrators were required to allow students to make up work missed and not penalize them for missing school due to religious observance.

The discussion has been in the works for years in New York, where the City Council approved a measure in 2009 that would have added both of the Muslim holidays to the public school holiday calendar. But Mayor Michael Bloomberg opposed the idea. He told the New York Times then:

“If you close the schools for every single holiday, there won’t be any school,” he said. “Educating our kids requires time in the classroom, and that’s the most important thing to us.”

Mayoral candidates in New York recently said they would support closing schools in observance of the two Eids.

According to CAIR-LA's report, closing schools in observance of a religious holiday is legally permissible "so long as the school can demonstrate a valid secular purpose for closing, such as excessive absenteeism," citing another case as legal precedent.

Schools have accommodated students of various faiths in different ways recently. The University of California announced this week that it would delay the quarterly system academic year to avoid conflict with the Jewish High Holy Days, for example; the UC system did the same in 2009 for semester schools when late August move-in days conflicted with Ramadan.

But that isn’t the case everywhere. In Maryland's Montgomery County, where CAIR-Maryland estimates a Muslim population of about 10,000, an effort to include Muslim holidays on the school district’s calendar has been at a standstill. The district currently recognizes Christian and Jewish holidays on its calendar by closing schools for those days.

"At least, even if they're not getting that day off, have Muslim holidays recognized by schools as a legitimate holiday," Dadabhoy said."Even if it's on there, teachers and districts will know this is a day where this minority population will be taking a day off and they won't have to go through hurdles."

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