When the first day of school falls on a religious holiday

  • Article by: SUSAN HOGAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 1, 2011 - 4:47 PM

There's a legislative precedent for not forcing students to choose between attending religious observances or the first day of school.

 The Minneapolis School Board recently voted 5-3 to start the 2011 school year on Aug. 29 even though it conflicts with a major Muslim holiday.

But there’s a legislative precedent for not forcing students to choose between attending religious observances or the first day of school.

In 1994, the Legislature passed a one-time only bill so school date starts could be changed to avoid conflicts with the beginning of the Jewish High Holidays.

At the time, there were far fewer Jews living in Minnesota than there presently are Muslims.

"In the 1990s, everyone grasped immediately that the issue was freedom of religious expression and that we all have a stake in this," said Brian Rusche, executive director of the Minneapolis-based Joint Religious Legislative Coalition.

He would like to see similar sensitivity exercised this year toward Muslim students.

Current Minnesota law requires that K-12 schools start after Labor Day. There are exceptions to the rules, much to the chagrin of the state’s tourism industry, which says the earlier start hurts businesses.

Both Jews and Muslims follow a lunar calendar, which means their holy days fall on differing dates each year.

The Muslim holiday at issue is Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the month of Ramadan, and the beginning of the month of Shawwal.

Ramadan is a time of intense fasting, and the Eid is a celebration breaking the fast. Muslims around the world dress in their finest and come together as a community to pray and feast. It’s also a time for family unity and gift giving.

In the United States, the Fiqh Council of North America offers official pronouncements on moon sightings, which determines the Muslim calendar and prayer times.

The council predicts that Shawwal will begin on Aug. 30 this year in the United States. Muslims days begin at sunset, which means the celebration starts on Aug. 29.

At the same time, many immigrant Muslims will mark the occasion a day earlier – when the moon is sighted in their homelands.

The Islamic Circle of North America isn’t happy with the lack of uniformity in the American celebrations.

"ICNA would like to see more harmony and unity among the Muslim community at the local level," leaders said in a statement last year.

Minneapolis school board members Rebecca Gagnon, Richard Mammen and Hussein Samatar, a Muslim, voted against starting the 2011-12 school year in August because of the conflict with the Muslim celebration.

But five members voted for the Aug. 29 start date, despite pleas that to do so was culturally and religiously insensitive.

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