Board Might Continue Muslims' Early Release
By Joshua Zumbrun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 22, 2006; Page B09
The Howard County school board has agreed to consider continuing a policy that has allowed Muslim students to leave school 20 minutes early on Fridays to attend prayer services.
The five-member board voted Tuesday night not to accept changes proposed by a policy review committee that would have prohibited the students from leaving early. The board will study the issue over the next school year. The board also indicated that it might be willing to continue the policy, if it would not harm student education.
Some Muslim students leave school 20 minutes early on Fridays to attend prayer services with their congregations. Over the course of a year, it adds up to a significant amount of missed instruction time, according to the committee.
The board began looking into the issue after the policy review committee discovered that the rules granting leave had been inconsistently applied. The committee recommended that religious holidays be excused, but not weekly prayers. Instead, students would be allowed to hold weekly prayers on school grounds.
School system officials are unsure how many of its 48,000 students leave for Friday prayers or would choose to do so if it were clearly allowed. At a hearing in May, officials said they were aware of five students who were leaving school campuses. Now officials say that the number is at least nine and probably higher.
"Constitutionally, we are obligated to make reasonable accommodation to those who wish to practice their religion," said Joshua M. Kaufman, chairman of the Howard County Board of Education.
Kaufman said that during the next year, the board must consider how many students would be affected, what the impact would be on teachers and whether the policy would be fair or would have unintended consequences for students of all religions.