"We did not ask for Christmas to be removed, we did not ask for the Jewish holidays to be removed from the calendar," one Montgomery County parent said.
"The reality is, we are still closed for Christmas,"
"We are still closed for Yom Kippur."
"It was like a punch in the face it came out of nowhere,"
"It was very insensitive to our Christian and Jewish neighbors ".
The school board president, in trying to defend the decision pointed to other major school districts that have similar holiday policies, told CBS news that:
"I think we touched a couple of third rails," Montgomery County school board president Phil Kauffman said. "That's really what many other school systems -- New York, Miami, Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas, Atlanta -- it's really the norm."
The New Jersey State Board of Education has adopted a whole slew of religious holidays that public school kids may be absent from school to observe. New Jersey regulations on religious observation for students covers many religious sects, including Muslims, Hindu and Wiccans. In its recommendations on planning for holiday activities the NJ Dept. of Education also has a prescription for schools in those communities that have families that are opposed to holiday celebrations and/or activities for religious reasons. The Camden School Board or, now the powerless "advisory" only group, has the added policy "discretion of approving other religious holidays". However, the closing of the schools for two Muslim holidays remains an outstanding concern of some New Jersey Muslims as in the recent case of in Teaneck, NJ.
Montgomery County School President Phil Kaufmann's defensive argument may be the norm in some places but, given the uproar over the board's ruling, something else more sinister may be afoot as background to the school board's decision that seems to have "touched a third rail" in angering people of most religious faiths. Many issues are related to and run parallel with "War on Christmas" conservative ideology, including the dangerous anti-Muslim Islamophobia that has emerged again after being somewhat muted by the virulent racism spewed out on President Obama and the xenophobia expressed around Latino immigration issues in the past few years. The continued presence of US led forces in Afghanistan, Israel's on-going settler movement into more Palestinian territory and the latest reintroduction of US troops in Iraq (plus extension of US backed war fighting into Syria) to shore up Iraqi government soldiers in their push back against the ugly brutalities of ISIS and its announced threats against the US homeland may have had some background influenced on the anti-Muslim thinking of the Maryland school board's decision to not approved the Muslim request for equal religious treatment.
With the larger background concerns in mind, I want to focus on the religious and cultural question about the holy day/holiday of Christmas. I have left Easter and the Jewish school holidays for others to ponder.
Most assuredly, In a multi-religious and ethnically diverse society such as ours, with no one state sponsored and constitutionally approved religion, it is an injustice to have public schools celebrate (by closing) one particular religion's set holy day, re: officially observed holiday. It had been politically agreeable, as shown by the Maryland school board and many school districts across the country, to close the schools in observance of Christian and lately some Jewish holy days. Muslims and other less powerful religious groups are not normally allowed, unjustifiably, the privilege of public and federal/state backed observance of their holy days. In demonstrating its power to withhold justice to less powerful religious groups, the Maryland school agreed to take the religious names for the observances away while deceptively keeping the scheduled times for the observances intact.
On the other hand, if Christmas is a cultural holiday (backed by the federal and several state governments) that can somehow be increasingly detached from its post-Puritan (after the late 1600's) church roots in America --- remember the Puritans and Pilgrim founders of colonial New England for a numbers of years actually banned Christmas celebrations (1651-1689); they were initially opposed to Christmas celebrations, because of suspicion of its links to ancient pagan European and other regional festivals, its overly joyous tendency to distract from the seriousness of the Puritan quest for salvation based on observable, saint approved righteousness, and the lack of solid evidence for celebrating Christmas in the earliest expressions of Christianity --- then the religious aspects of the public holiday can be minimized while the strictly cultural dimensions can be enjoyed across sectarian lines..
The religious dimensions of Christmas should obviously be celebrated by Christians within religious circles and institutions, but not in public, tax paid for settings. To do so invites other religions to inquire as their rights to do likewise. One could imagine the social outcry and violent threats against minority religious believers if they were to grant the rights to do religious activities in public spaces that the majority of Christians say is their exclusive and inherent right to do in public settings. The whole issue of school prayer is not merely a theist v atheist debate. It's more an intra-theist debate that seeks answers to whose religious prayers are to be the standard for teaching in the public schools.
A goodly number of moderate to conservative Christian, Jews, Muslims and others would likely be among the first to want to bring back "prayer in the schools". Certainly they would want their own prayerful traditions to made part of a school curriculum. Just as certainly, also many sincere believers in all the faiths actually believe that their faiths, prayers, religious clerics and traditions are superior to others (who are lost souls with incorrect beliefs) and can never be seen or heard on an equal footing. This is the crux of the prayer in schools problem for theists. Whose sectarian prayer remains the main dilemma in a nation with a huge religiously oriented population?
Yet, the cultural presentation of Christmas for public consumption is kind of what has happened since the late 19th century commercialization of Christmas in the USA. Santa and Ms. Claus, the North Pole and elves, Rudolph and the four-legged crew, fir tree buying and preparation, mistletoe kissing, spiked egg nog drinking, gift wrapping, giving, travel to mom's house, children's toy makers, alcohol and spirit manufacturers, sports and entertainment producers, Uncle Sam's IRS tax and state collectors and the multiple other merchants who peddle Christmas wares, including the all the media promoters and movie hypes types --- have played significant roles in making cultural Christmas more like a holiday for all people, even those of other religious persuasions.
I know Muslims, Jews, traditional African and Native Americans religionists. Buddhists and Hindu people I have worked with who have no problem enjoying themselves, their families and friends and their time off from tedious work schedules during cultural Christmas. I was a high school history teacher for 25 years and have known teachers of many faith traditions all of whom were thrilled to enjoy their Christmas holiday breaks. I am also Muslim and I should also confess that earlier in life I was a budding young minister in the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses, a Christian group that consciously foreswears the celebration of Christmas. Back in the mid-1950's my Witness parents arranged to buy and give me presents the on Christmas Eve the day before Christmas so when I visited my little non-Witness relatives, I would not feel slighted in anyway.