The End of Religious School Holidays?

On Friday, students in Florida's Hillsborough County School District had the day off from school for Good Friday, no matter what religious faith they practiced.

It's the last time they will have Good Friday off as a districtwide day off from school.

As part of the ongoing struggle in schools across the country on how to respect holy days of all religions, the Hillsborough school district, which encompasses the city of Tampa, came up with its own solution.

It has eliminated all religious holidays starting with the 2007-2008 school year.

Like school districts in so many parts of the country, Hillsborough County has tried to accommodate its diverse student body.

"We, like many districts, have had Christian holidays for years and years," said Steve Hegarty, a communications officer for Hillsborough County. Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, was added a few years ago, he says.

Fair to All Faiths

"Last year, a group of Muslims asked for a day off too," Hegarty said. The school board decided: "Let's go for a calendar that's fair to all faiths."

The controversy began in 2004, when a group of Muslims made a request to the school board to coincide days off with two major Muslim holidays, like the board had done with Jewish and Christian holidays for years. The school board said it would consider the request.

Thinking it was coming up with a calendar that would work for its students, Hillsborough looked carefully at holiday schedules as it planned the 2007-2008 school calendar.

Eid al-Fitr, a Muslim holiday, and Yom Kippur both fall on Saturdays this year, so no additional days off would be needed. The board decided not to give Good Friday as a day off next year.

"We were hoping the district would accommodate us," said Ahmed Bedier of the Tampa chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "We never wanted anyone to lose their days. We were just hoping to be included."

The decision began a firestorm of letters, calls and e-mails from angry parents and community members.

"People who might not even find Tampa on a map were sending us e-mails that were hateful -- many of them anti-Muslim," Hegarty said.

The 'War on Easter'?

The "war on Christmas" seems to have included Easter this year. On Saturday, a public school in Rhode Island decided the Easter Bunny was "too Christian" to appear at a crafts fair held at Tiverton Middle School in Tiverton.

The school renamed him Peter Rabbit, which angered a Rhode Island congressman so much that he introduced an "Easter Bunny Act" to preserve the name of the traditional Easter symbol.

In an interview on "Good Morning America's Weekend Edition," Rhode Island State Rep. Richard Singleton said, "Like many Rhode Islanders, I'm quite frustrated … by people trying to change traditions that we've held in this country for 150 years."

Back in Florida, one group that is fighting to keep religious holidays on the school calendar is the Florida Family Association. The association is worried that if school is held on Good Friday, Christmas could be the next holiday to be removed.

In a statement on the Florida Family Association's Web site, executive director David Caton said, "The school district … claimed that constitutional restraints require them to eliminate religious holidays. If this excuse were true, why did the school district keep Christmas within the holiday period described as 'Winter Break?'"

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