Instead of banning Christmas and Halloween, an Illinois school board decided to add Ramadan to the school calendar.
Dozens of parents said at an Oak Lawn school board meeting Tuesday night that while they’re happy to have a student body of varying religions, they want to keep celebrating what they say are traditional American holidays and customs.
That doesn’t mean they aren’t open to observing other religions’ holidays, the parents told the Ridgeland School District 122 board, which was looking at its policies concerning religious teachings and observances. At issue is whether Christian holidays, such as Christmas, should be celebrated now that Muslim children make up about 30 percent of district pupils.
After meeting for 2 1/2 hours in a closed session, board members decided to keep the district’s Christmas and Halloween parties and add a Ramadan celebration.
The debate, which has raged in the community for weeks, was sparked by a parent, Elizabeth Zahdan, who asked that stars and moons be displayed in schools in honor of Ramadan. She was denied and told that schools couldn’t partake in religious celebrations.
“I want everyone to be equally acknowledged. I never demanded that no one can celebrate. I never said take Christmas away,” Zahdan said at the meeting before the board went into a closed session..
Supt. Tom Smyth said Zahdan raised the issue of fairness.
“This thing has gotten so big that the board needs to know the legalities of the separation of church and state and its policies about teaching religion in school,” he said before the meeting.
“If you look at our policy, you either teach about all religions in school or remain neutral,” Smyth said. “According to our policy, we are to maintain a climate of neutrality within the classroom. We cannot give preference to one religion over another.”
Resident Bryan Schapiro argued that long-standing traditions are under attack.
“For a number of years now I’ve seen something change every year because it goes against Muslim beliefs,” Schapiro said. “Traditions that have been beloved by children in America for centuries are now being taken away little by little because the Muslims want the school day, menu and social traditions tailored to their needs.”
But resident Khetam Khairallah told the board there’s no valid reason to abandon traditional celebrations. “It’s a coward’s way out when the people in charge say we’re going to abandon something because of political correctness,” she said.
Bernard Beck, sociology professor emeritus at Northwestern University, said such problems are common in areas of demographic shifts.
“When you get changes in society or in the population, it creates new situations,” he said. “What people are used to and take for granted suddenly comes into question.”
He said religious tolerance in America is constantly being renegotiated.
“America has been trying to get along on the basis of a bargain, saying, ‘We’re all basically the same.’ But more recently, the message is, ‘We’re not all the same. Not all religions have the same message.'”
Kenneth Saltman, associate professor of educational policy at DePaul University, said that religious celebration should be left to the private sphere.
“I am a really strong advocate for the separation of church and state and, as far as I’m concerned, I don’t see the place of religion in public institutions,” he said.
Some parents expressed frustration that the furor over holidays is generating more interest than a pending referendum issue that could restore lost art, music and band programs.
“I hope everyone fights for education as hard as we’re fighting for Halloween and Santa,” said Dan Risley.