Why a County School Board’s Vote on Diwali Has National Implications

The Howard County (MD) Board of Education’s unanimous vote to approve Diwali (Deepavali) as a day off for students isn’t just significant for the Hindu community there. It represents a broader discussion on pluralism in rapidly diversifying regions, and is likely to have national consequences as religious minorities grow in number.

The vote to add the holiday on the 2016 calendar was a surprise, given that Hindu community members and organizations such as the Hindu American Foundation(HAF) and Chinmaya Mission had petitioned for inclusion in 2017. But as Board Chairwoman Christine O’Connor noted at the time of the vote, the county acted to ensure that the academic calendar reflected the district’s substantial Hindu, Muslim, and East Asian populations by adding Diwali and Eid al-Adha while keeping Lunar New Year’s Eve.

“We want to do our best to find flexibility within the calendar to provide opportunities for all students to experience all cultures within our community,” O’Connor said.

The inclusion of Diwali in the 2016 calendar as a professional day on October 31 (a day after the Lunar Calendar observance of the holiday) reflected a growing trend to diversify school calendars that have for years been exclusively Judeo-Christian. In other counties and cities across America, Muslim holidays such as Eid and East Asian observances such as Lunar New Year have been added. In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio added Eid and Lunar New Year, but rejected Hindu, Jain, Sikh, and Buddhist attempts to add Diwali despite a diverse coalition of organizations and elected officials pushing for its inclusion.

Howard County’s vote might have been prompted by what a neighboring county did just two months earlier. In November, the Montgomery County (MD) Board of Education voted to include Eid al-Adha to its 2016-17 calendar, despite concerns from several Board members and public education advocates on adding the holiday without an evaluation of impact or discussion of any other cultural and religious groups. In most school districts, holidays are usually added when there’s an administrative burden, meaning that a certain percentage of students and staff would miss school during those days. In districts such as Montgomery and Howard, Christians and Jews have traditionally proved that burden, but in recent years, East Asian communities, Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs have grown significantly in population.

Following the vote in Montgomery County, community members asked what could be done to include Diwali as a holiday. In turn, I asked folks I work closely with – such as Charles Haynes, one of the nation’s foremost experts on religion and public schools – on the legal ramifications, given how politicized church-state separation issues can be. Haynes has noted that closing school specifically for a religious holiday could have ripple effects, especially as different communities begin to ask for their own holidays. In other words, it could become a Pandora’s Box. However, the need to balance church and state separation with the desire of community members to be recognized (since Montgomery County has one of the most well established Hindu, Jain and Sikh communities in the country) was an issue that the Board would need to resolve.

HAF, with the help of a number of Hindu, Jain, and Sikh community leaders and organizations, including the Chinmaya Mission, the United Jain Hindu Temples, and Guru Gobind Singh Foundation (Sikhs observe Diwali as Bandi Chhor Divas, or the day of liberation for Guru Hargobind), started a petition for Montgomery County to include Diwali as a day off in 2017. This was an issue that many folks felt passionate about, and their non-Diwali observing friends and neighbors joined in to help. As a result, the petition generated over 1,300 signatures in less than a month, and several Hindu community members testified and attended Montgomery County Board hearings over the past two months.

In Howard County, however, I worked with some proactive community members to meet with district officials. A similar petition was started (with nearly 300 signatures in under 2 weeks), and one of the community member’s daughters, a student at Centennial High School, got a number of her classmates to sign. We testified at the December Board hearing, but none of us expected Diwali to be included in the 2016 holiday.

The Howard County decision means that a professional development day will be moved to the time when Hindus observe Diwali. Though this year, it falls on a Sunday, many Hindus (and Jains and Sikhs) observe the holiday over several days. The way the Board approved it — along with Eid al-Adha — seemed to thread the needle between inclusiveness and Constitutional boundaries between church and state by using an existing professional day as a means of acknowledging the holiday. Moreover, it gave the county (and community) a mandate to evaluate its changing demographics. Board Member Janet Siddiqui, who proposed including Diwali and the other holidays, said it was simply a matter of making Howard County appealing for both its diversity and livability.

“I strongly believe that our school calendar should be inclusive of the cultures and religions of all Howard County residents,” she said at last week’s meeting. “I moved here thirty years ago, because of the schools, but more because of the diversity. In a county where we pride ourselves on our diversity, we have to demonstrate that in terms of our actions.”

While we’ll have to wait another 10 months before finding out whether Montgomery County follows suit, it’s important to realize that including Diwali in a school calendar isn’t just a big step for the families who observe it, but a pragmatic action by a school board whose constituency has dramatically changed. Ultimately, that’s reflective of a proactive pluralism likely to be emulated in other parts of the country.