TAMPA – Hillsborough County school officials say no issue in recent memory has generated more controversy than the decision to remove religious holidays from the school calendar.
The county school board has received hundreds of e-mails since its vote two weeks ago. National and local media are peppering officials almost daily with interview requests. Other elected leaders are criticizing the decision.
“This has become divisive in ways we never intended or imagined,” said superintendent MaryEllen Elia, who wants the board to reverse its decision tonight and restore the holidays to next year’s calendar.
But why has this issue touched such a nerve locally and nationally? Many school districts, including Pinellas County five years ago, severed their connection between religious holidays and student vacations with little or no fanfare.
Scholars and observers say the key reasons are religion, culture and timing.
The fact that a Muslim group’s request for a holiday sparked the calendar change made the issue particularly contentious. The Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly has focused on the involvement of Muslims, many of whom objected to the removal of all religious holidays and fought to keep Jewish and Christian observances on the calendar.
“To the average person, the misinformed person, they’re thinking the Muslims somehow are responsible for Christians and Jews losing their holidays,” said Ahmed Bedier, Florida director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
“They’re thinking, how dare the School Board get rid of holidays for the Muslims. If this was a Baptist group coming forward, we would not be having this conversation.”
When University of Florida Islamic studies professor Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons heard board members had removed every religious holiday except Christmas, she said: “Wow.”
Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, many Americans have viewed Islam as a violent religion, she said. News stories about the war in Iraq and Muslim insurgents killing American soldiers have made the religion even less popular.