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Time off for Muslim holidays: Attorney challenges decision to let SF students stay home for Eid

Gifts on a table await distribution for an Eid al-Fitr celebration in the San Francisco Bay Area on Tuesday, May 19, 2020. | Scott Strazzante/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

The attorney behind a lawsuit against San Francisco renaming its public schools now demands an end to plans for giving students time off during Muslim holidays, according to a letter shared with The Standard.

The San Francisco Unified School District Board of Education must rescind an Aug. 9 resolution to give students an extra day off in April and June in order to “avoid unnecessary litigation,” wrote Paul Scott, who’s famed for convincing the U.S. Department of Justice to join fraud litigation targeting Lance Armstrong.

In the missive forwarded to The Standard on Thursday, Scott argues that the board violated open meeting laws under the Brown Act, as well as the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, which prevents public agencies from favoring one religious denomination over another. 

He gave SFUSD Board President Jenny Lam and her colleagues until Aug. 31 to decide whether or not to rescind the holiday resolution.

“We will first evaluate the School Board’s response, but litigation is the logical next step if they fail to take corrective action,” Scott wrote in an email to The Standard. “The board’s action violated the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause, parallel provisions under the California Constitution, and the Brown Act.”

The resolution passed in a 4-2-1 vote earlier this month after dozens of Muslim students, family members and supporters called for Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha to be recognized by the district. Students who spoke in favor of the resolution attested to the struggles of choosing between celebrating an important day with family and missing school.

Commissioner Ann Hsu cast the lone vote against the action. Commissioners Lainie Motamedi and Mark Sanchez were absent.

Arab Resource and Organizing Center Executive Director Lara Kiswani, whose group spearheaded the effort to add the holidays to the school calendar, called the move "racist." She said their community still feels proud and celebratory about the resolution’s passage. 

“I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that something as simple as representation and celebration of the cultures that make up the diverse communities of our city could come under attack in this political climate,” Kiswani wrote in a text to The Standard. “But we should definitely be concerned. Of course we know we’ll have to defend gains that we make, which is always the case when it comes to the fight for social justice.”

Scott said he’s sympathetic to the board’s concerns about discrimination against the Muslim community, calling bias against children based on religion “completely unacceptable.” But he said he doesn’t think carving out time off from the instructional calendar is the best solution.

“The Board is committed to ensuring San Francisco public schools are inclusive learning spaces for every student, and will consider what next steps it can take to celebrate SFUSD’s diversity of cultures," said Board of Education President Jenny Lam after acknowledging the Eid resolution.

SFUSD has fielded several lawsuits in recent years, some over decisions to rename 44 schools and others over covering up controversial murals at George Washington High School and eliminating academic-based admissions at Lowell High School. 

Former Commissioner Alison Collins—who was recalled in February with two fellow board members—also unsuccessfully filed a $87 million suit over the board’s decision to remove her titles and committee assignments in light of controversial tweets.  

Matt Smith contributed additional reporting for this story.